The news that I had been selected to speak at TEDxStroud came on what can only be called a day from hell. It was August 2020. The brick gable end of my mother’s old garage had just collapsed in a storm leaving live electricity cables strewn across the driveway. She was unadvisedly trying to tidy them away while sinking into a diabetic low when we received the news that my brother-in-law’s father had died of Covid. In the flurry of activity and phone calls that followed, the email plopped into my inbox: CONGRATULATIONS! You are one of nine people selected from 84 applicants to deliver a TEDx talk on the theme of Emergence…
I had totally forgotten I had even applied and my heart simultaneously raced and sank as I realised this was another gauntlet I had to take up. TED is the mecca of public speaking platforms. The iconic red spot on the floor has hosted some of the world’s very best speakers and lured over 3,600 people with a good idea to share. There are strict criteria: No more than 18 minutes per talk. No selling or promotion of a product or business. No profit or pay to speakers or organisers… just a good idea that is worth spreading.
Over the following months, Covid threw curveballs at the original visions for a live event with an audience of 400, sending each one flying like skittles in an alley. Lockdown even forced a postponement from November’20 to March’21. The organising team were undeterred in their commitment. With each new restriction, they adapted, delivering changes of plan with supportive sensitivity and unwaning optimism. Meanwhile, we speakers met in Zoom rooms hosted by other talented volunteers where we would listen and feed back to each other while witnessing amorphous blobs of chosen subjects being honed to their essence. Not ‘just a minute‘ without ‘hesitation, deviation or repetition’ as on BBC Radio 4, but 18 minutes!
Sounds easy? It’s not. The techniques to memorise our talks ranged from falling asleep to a recording of your own voice droning its way into your memory, (nothing has ever sent me to sleep faster, all insomniacs click here if you’d like a copy!) to delivering it in a silly Texan accent. We had to practice talking to the barrel of a camera lens while smiling at some imaginary audience member sitting beyond it. We even had to choose proper clothes to wear as opposed to our baggy lockdown jumpers and leggings.
Kind friends tried to assuage the terror that gained momentum over the final two months until it clenched my chest in a vice and froze my brain. “But you speak so well… it’s no different from the talks you already give… you can do this with your eyes shut.” But a TEDx talk isn’t the same at all. It will be uploaded to YouTube and made available to a global audience… potentially forever. You have no slides or prompts to jog the memory. And what’s more, my ‘great’ Tedx idea isn’t an easy one to talk about, let alone sell as a ‘gift’! Because I am basically asking people to get really uncomfortable; to follow me on a journey that descends into the dark underbelly of human experience, where prisoners, Nazis, unspeakable atrocities or war experiences fester like wounds marinated in silence, pain and shame.
I sometimes feel I should apologise for bringing such things into the light of awareness. But I won’t, because the rewards are too great to ignore. And because it has become clear, not just to me but to neuroscientists, geneticists and psychologists, that we have to go there if we want to break the cycle by which toxic, unresolved past traumas and wrongdoings persistently disrupt the present. Now more than ever, it is important to recognise the link between the past and so many of today’s symptoms of violence, division, discrimination, inequality, addictions, injustices, racism…
It is not easy to face unacknowledged past harm, not least because it will have been buried for a reason, often a good reason such as protection or avoidance of pain. But I promise you, it is ultimately easier than schlepping it around with us, patching it up and handing it on to the next generation to deal with.
From 13th-15th February, Dresdeners will be gathering to mark the anniversary of the destruction of their city in 1945. This year, rather than creating their usual human chain to snake through the city in peaceful reflection, it will, like most things in this pandemic, be a largely online affair. A Dresden Trust trustee always attends the event as a gesture of deeply-felt solidarity and reconciliation. This year was to be my year to represent the Trust, but instead we have sent a video of messages to our friends and contacts there. Immediate emails of thanks reveal how deeply moved they have been by this extension of virtual British hands and hearts to them. It was a tiny act on our part, but its value was clearly of significance.
The last couple of years have seen the 75th anniversaries of many Second World War events: the D-Day landings, VE Day, VJ Day, the liberation of Auschwitz… Each was naturally ‘celebrated’ in technicolour with dignitaries from around the world, for these were some of our nation’s finest hours. Tucked in the shadows of those victories, was the 75th anniversary of the UK and USA bombing of Dresden. As far as I am aware, no British politician attended. Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn even commented on it. It is still a thorn in the side of Britain’s conscience.
I am fully aware of the contention surrounding the bombing of Dresden. Was the city a legitimate target? Did the Germans deserve it? Was it a war crime? Were Bomber Harris and his Command heroes or part of a campaign that went too far… way too far? In the articles at the bottom of this post you can read up on some of these attitudes, as well as get a picture of the horrors witnessed by a British serviceman held prisoner there.
Seventy-six years on, I feel we are totally missing the point if we get tangled up in binary discussions of whether it was right or wrong. Within the context of Hitler and a World War, you can see how it could be considered ‘right’. On that basis, by reading some of my German grandfather’s letters, you can also see how it could have been considered ‘right’ to invade Russia. And by listening to the stories of prisoners, you can also come to understand how they too consider their crimes to have been the ‘right’ thing to have done. Wrongdoing – on an individual or national level – is usually based on thoughts that justify it as being the ‘right’ thing to do. Often this is a reaction designed to redress the wrongdoing of another… and so it goes on. The validity of the reasoning, however, doesn’t automatically make it the right thing to do morally.
We are living through extraordinary times of potential change for good. I say ‘potential’ because if we in Britain do not broaden our perspectives on our past in tune with history’s ever-shifting shape, we run the risk of becoming fossilised within it. Nothing can change if we cling to the old. The current statue debate, as provocatively and passionately pursued by Robert Jenrick, our secretary of state for housing, communities and institutions, is an example of the deeply flawed thinking at the core of some of our attitudes to the past. For him, statues represent history itself. Yet they don’t. They represent the values of the time. Both history and values evolve, and debating and adapting to this evolution are important parts of any country’s healthy relationship to its past. What’s more, focusing on statues is a classic example of merely treating the symptom rather than the cause of a problem.
While I don’t believe the removal (or not) of statues is either the real issue or the solution, the government’s evident terror of a ‘revisionist purge’ by ‘town hall militants,’ ‘woke worthies’ and ‘baying mobs’ is revealing. (And insulting to the justifiable requests for a reconsideration of the appropriateness of certain statues in today’s cities). It is the terror, not just of the dismantlement of our statues and heritage, but of our almost purely benign self-image. So great is that fear, that Mr Jenrick is giving himself the personal power to intervene in democratic decisions made by local communities, councils and institutions about the fate of their statues if their decisions don’t adhere to the government’s position. Is that democracy?
Our national self-image and reputation have already been considerably wobbled, if not toppled, in recent years. So I say, bring it on! Why don’t we just go for it? Why don’t we literally ‘come out’ officially and admit: We have… at times… been utter shits. Does that automatically diminish all that we hold dear and celebrate about ourselves? No, not at all. We can be all those good things AS WELL AS being, at times… shits. We can have done and achieved amazing things AS WELL AS having made mistakes, or been on the wrong side of good, or been actively, deliberately bad. We can honour our pilots and soldiers AS WELL AS deeply question the morality of some of our decisions. No country will think less of us… indeed I am sure they will embrace and welcome our vulnerability after so much bullish bluster.
Until we can shift our position even just a little, Dresden will remain a contentious and unresolved issue. A dark smudge on the national conscience. Whether it was right or wrong, a war crime, an atrocity or a strategic attack, the fact remains that an estimated 25,000 people – primarily women, children, elderly, refugees and POWs – were killed in indescribably ghastly ways, by any standards of warfare. We deliberately designed it to be just so. Could this government, the successors of the instigators of such calculated destruction and loss of life, not also extend a small gesture of thought to the descendants of our victims?
In Mr Jenrick’s argument, “To tear [statues] down is, as the prime minister has said, ‘to lie about our history’.” If we really rely on our statues to tell the truth about our history, then we need to get carving and casting fast. For so far, only truths considered flattering or benign are being told. Nothing of the dark shadows cast by those men on pedestals is included in our statue-version of history. Doesn’t that then make it a lie…?
Past harm left unresolved is a burden that disrupts the present of each generation as it seeks resolution. It adversely shapes attitudes and policies. Let’s be the generation that works through the full truth of our past, creates peace with it and thereby liberates future generations from it.
In my forthcoming TEDx talk on 21st March 2021, I will be explaining How facing the past freed me. You can read more about it here and buy tickets to the event here
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When it comes to Remembrance, I cannot think of a more important day to take time to reflect than today – Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in 1945. Eighty or so years lie between us and the horrors that started in Germany and then spread beyond. Most of the survivors of those times are no longer able to bear witness to them. And yet, for many descendents, that past will still be alive shaping their present. It is primarily for them, and all that they carry in their hearts, that I pay such attention to this day.
As readers of my blogs will know, any day of remembrance raises questions in me: what to remember, how to remember it and to what end? I’m always particularly interested in the editing process of our personal, collective and national memories. Which selection of people, events and actions we choose to remember and honour. And which get left out.
Edits of history come about for all sorts of reasons, not least because some memories are too painful… or shameful to re-visit. But what happens to things that happened, but aren’t included in the stories we tell about ourselves? What happens to those awkward truths or people that disrupt more favoured version of events? Obviously politics plays a big role in shaping a country’s historical narrative to support left, right or centre agendas. But I still ask, what happens to the inconvenient truths that get suppressed, denied or banished to the footnotes?
I found this recent article by Richard Evans in the New Statesman fascinating: How should we remember the Holocaust? It describes some of the multiple points of view in the on-going debate about the appropriate form, location, size, message and so much more of the proposed Holocaust Memorial and learning centre in the heart of Westminster. It’s complicated. This is exactly the kind of debate Germany has been engaged in almost incessantly since the eighties and that lies behind their extensive culture of ‘counter memorials.’ At one point it was even suggested that perpetual debate on the form of a memorial was possibly the best way to keep the memories alive.
I have many thoughts (obviously!) on what is said in the article, but I will spare you of them here (except one!) in favour of inviting you, on this day, to think about where you stand in relation to Holocaust remembrance. My ‘one’ opinion echoes that of Raphael Wallfisch, a leading international concert cellist whose mother was forced by the SS to play in the infamous women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. He insists that the proposed ‘British Values Learning Centre’ “must reflect clearly and truthfully, the complete and unvarnished truth of Britain’s role before, during and after the Jewish Holocaust…” This request for a fuller picture is echoed by many others in the Jewish community and beyond.
We are witnessing all around the world not only a rise in anti-Semitism, but also eruptions of rage as suppressed, uncomfortable truths surface. Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to re-think how, what and why we remember. The Britain of today needs to rise to this challenge, now more than ever before. Of course, remembering and hearing the stories of the victims is paramount. But if we primarily focus on what Germany did and how the British triumphed over evil, we are missing a vital lesson. Britain also needs to look at, and learn from, what we as a nation didn’t do… but could have done.
This man, Sir Nicholas Winton, could never be accused of not having done enough. Against all odds, he smuggled 669 boys and girls, destined for concentration camps, out of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Celebrating his unbelievable bravery and life-saving initiative with candles feels a truly fitting way to mark this day. We can all join in for households across the country are being invited to light a candle at 8pm this evening, as an encouragement to us all to “be the light in the darkness.”
‘Tis the season to remember… and yet, this year, for the first time, I forgot. Remembrance Sunday was almost over before I suddenly remembered to remember.
Locked down at home, I was definitely silent. But maybe the official 2-minute silence at 11am passed me by because in my talks and blogs I am frequently remembering. In fact, ‘looking back’ has become part of my identity, my expertise even. So much so that I have been selected, as one of nine speakers, to do a Tedx Talk on the subject: ‘Facing the past in order to create a fairer future.’ It’s an exciting opportunity though unfortunately lockdown has forced the proposed date of 29th November to be postponed until the spring. It will happen though… like so many other things in this disorientating Covid world in which we are currently immersed.
In the meantime, if you haven’t attended my talk on How Germany Remembersand would like to, there’s a chance to hear it online on Friday 13th November at 11.30am. It is being hosted by the National Army Museum in London where I spoke last year. You can read more about ithere and you can register for freehere.
But back to remembering… or forgetting in my case. Maybe there are some of us who feel a little tired of remembering. Or maybe it’s the national narrative we tell ourselves each year, that is tiring. This is one of the points made in Radio 4’s ‘Our Sacred Story’ in which Alex Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, suggests that the Second World War is both our modern sacred narrative as well as the shaper of our collective sense of what constitutes good and evil.
This summer we celebrated the 75thanniversaries of VE and VJ Day. In fact, we’ve done loads of national remembering over the past years. So aside from Remembrance fatigue, I’m wondering if Covid’s restrictive squeeze on lungs, lives and events alike, is also impacting what and how we remember. Lockdown has been turning mindsets inwards, shifting focus and values onto all that is immediately around us – family, gardens, quiet streets or empty skies. Maybe this new way of being is merging effortlessly with the existing sub-stream of thought that strives for essence rather than glitzy, sparkling veneer.
Looking at the BBC coverage of Remembrance Sunday, it is clear that even our mainstream institutions of commemoration are being forcibly stripped of excess. I salute the efforts of all involved in trying to evoke the all-too familiar rituals, yet nothing could distract from the extraordinary visuals of sparsity. Watching the morning ceremonies at the Cenotaph, one could be forgiven for not knowing where one was. The eerily still Whitehall dotted with a few socially-distanced, poppy- and wreath-bearing dignitaries resembled a set construction of a movie whose budget couldn’t stretch to more actors. And in Westminster Abbey, the Queen, bless her, hatted and masked up in black, couldn’t help but look a little like Darth Vader as she gently touched the white myrtle wreath that was then laid by a masked serviceman upon the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.
I couldn’t sit through the empty-seated Royal Albert Hall festivities that in the past have both grated and made me cry against my will. Instead, I sought the essence of remembrance in other areas. I soon found it in the podcast, We have ways of making you think. In their Episode 203 on Remembrance, historian James Holland and comedian Al Murray were in conversation with Glyn Prysor, former historian of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Between them they brought to life the history of the ubiquitous white headstones that fill acres and acres of land both here and on the continent.
Set up in 1917 while World War One was still raging, the process of burying in the region of a million war dead, half of whose remains were missing, demanded a very new way of thinking. In a departure from the Victorian hierarchy of worthiness that extended into death and resulted in the common man just being ‘bunged’ into a mass grave, the Commission made a move towards inclusion. It wanted to evoke the sense that everyone had contributed to the war and everyone was equal in death. The outcome was a uniform design for all headstones that would make no distinction between wealthy and poor. This was of course deeply controversial. Individuality would only be marked through the listing of name, rank, unit, regimental badge and date of death. An appropriate religious symbol could also be added, or not. And a space at the bottom was dedicated to personal messages from family members, some of whom would never be able to travel to the continent to visit the graves of their loved ones.
Covid has been highlighting the need for a similar leveling process across our hierarchies of wealth, fairness and opportunity. As in war, it is the personal losses and tragedies that will far surpass and long outlive the victories or shenanigans of the politics. In that vein, I found the essence of remembrance in an inscription spotted on a war grave in Bayeux:
Into the mosaic of victory, our most precious piece was laid.
What we choose to remember and why are questions that fascinate me, particularly in relation to the World Wars. For how we think of and present the past shapes the future. It’s therefore important to keep up with national narratives and August 2020 has offered a smorgasbord of anniversaries to study. On 6th August, Japan commemorated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 14th August was South Korea’s third Japanese Military Comfort Women Victims Memorial Day remembering the women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels. And here in the UK and elsewhere, 15th August was Victory over Japan or VJ Day marking Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. For America the commemoration is actually 2nd September when the official surrender document was signed.
In spite of my on-going interest in WW2 I have known little about the war in the Far East other than Kamikaze pilots, brutal ‘Japs’ and the TV drama series Tenko shown in the early eighties about British, Australian and Dutch women held in a Japanese internment camp. I can still recall the sand-coloured heat, cruel captors and tattered dresses of sun burnt women. I of course have known more about the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, but always as primarily an American/Japanese conflict. It wasn’t until I went there last year that I learned just how involved the British had been in the whole decision-making process.
As it turns out, I am not alone in my ignorance. Aside from widespread awareness of the notorious Japanese cruelty towards those they held captive – POWs, women and children alike – and the physical and mental scars from which many never recovered, it’s a fact, the war in the Far East always played second fiddle to the western imperative of beating the Germans. Even in 1943, troops in the Fourteenth Army fighting the Japanese in Burma referred to themselves as the ‘Forgotten Army.’ Post took months to arrive, resources were limited and their battles went unmentioned in newspapers. Yet by 1945, with around 1.3 million men and women having served in it, it was the largest army not only in the Commonwealth, but the world.
I’d never heard of it. Nor did I know until yesterday that when surviving troops finally returned to the UK in 1946, they were told specifically not to talk about their war but to ‘move on’ like everybody else had been trying to do since VE Day. So, having already been overlooked while fighting some of the most ferocious battles of WW2, they were now being requested both to forget and be forgotten once again. It’s a good example of the selective nature of memory, whether personal or collective. And it highlights the importance of ‘re-membering’ the full body of a past, especially those forgotten parts that were dismembered and sacrificed on the altar of a carefully considered national narrative.
This year’s VJ Day commemorations will have educated many of us on the Pacific War not least its multi-national nature. Gurkhas, Sikhs, Indians, Australians, Canadians, Africans, Americans, Welsh, Scottish and more fought side by side, united in their shared goal of defeating Japan. The 606,000 men that made up the aforementioned Fourteenth Army commanded by General William Slim were from 20 countries speaking 40 different languages. 87% were Indian, 3% African and 10% British.
The BBC’s morning coverage of VJ Day, The Nation Remembers, reflected this beautifully through a multi-cultural programme of readings and music by British Asian actors, Indian musicians, Scottish and African soldiers. Set amongst the conveniently socially distanced trees of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and with an incessant breeze ruffling hair and dresses alike, uniformed regiments casually mingled with royal dignitaries and politicians, while elderly veterans clad in best suits and medals shuffled on the arms of descendants or sat on benches staring into the far distance. “To all who served, we thank you,” said leaders from around the world in an online video. The presenter Sophie Raworth and historian Dan Snow once again sensitively drew out memories and stories to paint pictures of almost unimaginable scenes. But it was the veterans’ determined efforts to lay a wreath or stand up for the 2-minute silence that best captured the grit and humility of their generation.
The more formal ‘Nation’s Tribute’ in the evening provided another moving, albeit more polished testament to their resilience. Hosted by Joanna Lumley – in her serious Gurkha supporter and presenter role rather than the Champagne-swigging Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous – and against a stunning backdrop of visuals projected onto Horse Guards Parade, we heard further multinational perspectives by veterans, including ‘Captain Tom’, our lockdown hero.
I could listen to them for hours but our national culture of Remembrance clearly has a remit both to entertain and make us cry. So, in keeping with tradition, military bands, glittering celebrity singers and an actually wonderful danced fight performed by knife-bearing Gurkhas punctuated the programme.
All in all, this event was less nationalistic or victorious and more inclusive than any previous ones I have seen. Maybe Covid-19, maybe the Black Lives Matter protests or maybe increased maturity has finally nudged our commemorations towards the humility of those that knew the horrific cost of war behind any victory. There was even a small injection of public self-questioning into the rightness of such contentious acts as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That’s new. And very welcome.
As always, veterans asked us to remember those that fought; to ‘appreciate the value of the freedoms we enjoy’ for which so many gave their lives; and ‘to resolve never to be involved in another war.’ Akiko Macdonald, a Japanese woman married to an English man and working with veterans on both sides, called for reconciliation: ‘Yesterday’s foe is today’s friend.’ And Prince William asked us once again ‘to learn the lessons of the past’. I have often done that too in my talks and blogs. But this year I found myself asking what ‘learning from the past’ could mean for us today?
What I have learnt from the largely overlooked war in the Far East is the importance and power of working together, of overcoming difference to unite in a common goal. If we are to successfully tackle the enormous environmental, economic and social challenges the whole world faces, we need to learn to operate as a united body. Just as the Fourteenth Army overcame the challenges of national and cultural difference, we need to see beyond and rise above all that divides us. We need to pool resources, ideas and energy for the greater good of everyone. For as General Slim recognised in his journal, it was the ‘comradeship’ within the Fourteenth Army that ultimately turned defeat into victory.
To watch the BBC coverage of the Commemorations I mention
Something huge is happening in the UK. Britain’s colonial past is storming into the present and will not quieten until we listen to what it has to say. The national journey ahead of us will be deeply healing if we do.
In the past three weeks, the words “I can’t breathe” have become a universal slogan. And no, they have nothing to do with the Corona virus. They were the dying words of George Floyd as he was slowly killed, in full view, by a Minneapolis police officer. Like a match to dry tinder, his appalling, videotaped death ignited fury. Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements leapt to life spreading protests like bush fires through streets around the world. In the UK, while many people peacefully chanted, knelt or lay down in solidarity with the murdered man and fellow victims of racism, others went further, rocking the symbols of white supremacy quite literally off their pedestals.
In Bristol, the main target was the widely-despised statue of Edward Colston. Since his death in 1721, the philanthropist’s name and generosity had been celebrated in famous landmarks – a street, a school, the city’s largest concert hall – while the uncomfortable truth of his lucrative role as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading institution in British history, was hushed up. Estimates suggest he himself presided over the shipping of around 84,500 African men, women and children to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Horrendous 2-3 month sea journeys chained to the slave decks caused 19,000 to perish. Their RAC-branded bodies were unceremoniously tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as “wastage.”
Colston’s bronze presence has long been contentious in the city that used to be known as the ‘slave capital,’ but previous attempts to remove him had failed. On June 7th, however, Colston the philanthropist met his slave-trader Hyde when he was toppled off his perch and dumped head first into the harbour like one of the thousands of slaves under his watch. Whether you agree with such activism or not, it could hardly have been a more perfect gesture of karmic comeuppance. The aftershocks of his heavy landing are still reverberating, cracking the shiny veneer of Britain’s preferred version of history upon which it has built its largely benevolent national self-image.
I am not interested in judging the wisdom of this action – it was emotional and inevitable. I do not condone any of the subsequent violence and I deplore the eruption of the Far Right onto the streets with their eagerness to fight… anything. I am, however, glad that it was sufficiently contentious to prise open the Pandora’s Box of Britain’s imperialism making it impossible to slam the lid down on the restless ghosts of historic crimes.
Anyone who has attended my talks or read my blogs will know I have long been calling for Britain to look at, learn from and redress its own past wrongdoings. It has hitherto been far too easy to hide them in the shadows of the more recent Nazi genocide against which every atrocity naturally pales. For far too long, our history books and curriculums have primarily been testaments to our greatness: our victories and sacrifices, our worldwide achievements and position, the industrial revolution, the apparent huge benefits of British rule, the abolition of slavery… all worthy of celebration to those who still harvest and enjoy their fruits. But vast swathes of society are excluded from the feast and are still locked in lives of disadvantage, poverty and discrimination… or prison.
The fact that until 2015 tax payers were still paying off the £20 million debt borrowed by the government in 1833 to pay compensation, not to victims or descendants of slavery, but to wealthy slave owners who lost out when slavery was abolished, shows how the tentacles of slave ownership reach into our present. Surely such glaring insult and inappropriateness are more worthy of expressions of outrage than the temporary covering of Winston Churchill’s statue? Yet Boris Johnson’s string of passionate tweets defending the lump of bronze representing his all-time role model were not only the same typical deflections from the existential debate being demanded by living people… on our streets… now, which are employed by many conservative thinkers. They also display a widespread British contradiction that is out of date and out of sync with the world. We as a nationverge on the obsessive when it comes to remembering our past as saviours of Europe from fascism. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the dark underbelly of murder, pillage, torture, cruelty, oppression, racism – the list is long – that formed the foundations of wealth, privilege and inequality on which so much of British society is built.
The prime minister scored an own goal when he tweeted “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.” The editing and censoring the past is precisely what these protests have been about! Other than one in Liverpool, there are no dedicated museums to the slave trade. As for ‘teaching us about our past,’ one viral video of a slave trader being torn down has achieved far more in terms of educating people about Britain’s past atrocities than any existing statue has ever done. On an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron employed much the same avoidance tactic by stating that it was time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” How can you move on from something that is still happening? Until Britain finds a way as Germany has been trying to do – initially reluctantly and on the insistence of the British – to reckon with its imperial past and scarred present, we will not be able to “move on”.
Monuments are key to national identity. They demonstrate and instruct the values of a society by elevating heroes of the time onto plinths to be looked up to and respected for generations to come. They are not innately required to be permanent. Romans used to melt down their statues for coins. So what should happen when those same values become disgusting, offensive and humiliating, whichever angle you look at them from? When they become symbols of psychological and political oppression? Would British people not rightly feel offended or appalled having to constantly walk past statues of former oppressors – Hitler, Goebbels, Rommel – either here or in Germany? Yet this is what the black community have had to endure, seeing the slave-traders who murdered their ancestors, committed mass crimes, genocide and atrocity against them still celebrated in public. The toppling, removal or covering of monuments is not “to lie about history,” as Johnson claims. Nor should it become the prime debate, as it has in right wing papers, whose writers are incidentally putting up almost identical arguments and resistance to owning national atrocity as Germans once did. The statues have simply woken people from their willful amnesia. But there is a danger. If the agitators of colonial history simply vanish, so could the discourse and urgently needed education.
From all my studies and experience of Germany’s post-WW2 culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past) and the ensuing counter memorials and museums that dot the nation’s cities, parks and pavements, there is much the British state/we can, and must, do. As descendants of the original perpetrators, current generations are not to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, but we are responsible for making amends. So, rather than focusing purely on the clunky symbols and symptoms of discontent and planning ten-year prison sentences for those desecrating memorials, the government should be fully engaging with the debate and the root of the problem: institutional racism. The full truth of our past – warts and all – must be integrated into history lessons and school curriculums, museums and public monuments. Like in Germany, cities around the UK could hold their own competitions for imaginative counter monuments – Banksy has already submitted his proposal. Or information tableaus could be erected beside any monuments that remain in situ presenting the other side of the story along with an unmitigated condemnation of any repetition of those values. Also like in Germany, rather than building the highly contested Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament, a memorial to Britain’s own victims could be created as a reminder of how fragile civilisation and democracy are. And for the victims’ descendants, opportunities for conversation, dedicated remembrance days, apology, restitution, compensation, reconciliation, investment… it’s all so late but there is so much to do.
Facing and talking about uncomfortable truths is the first step to healing them. Covid has exposed the inequalities in our society. We have a unique opportunity here for attitudinal and structural change. In the words of the soul singer, Erykah Badu, we need to ‘stay woke’. We simply cannot go back to sleep on this. Rumi, the13th Century Persian poet’s beautiful message is so very apposite for these times.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”
Further reading (I have included a couple of articles with which I wholeheartedly disagree!)