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Letter to Obinna -BLM/endSARS

    Letter from Manchester, UK: Black Lives Matter It is snowing here in Manchester, England, the evening of 7th January 2021.  I’ve been watching across media astonishing images of the US Capitol building being invaded by an aggrieved white mob. My mind turns to the summer of 2020 when the Black Lives Matter movement landed here in England. It ignited much soul-searching among the majority white population of England.  While triggered by the USA George Floyd video, there had been in advance of the Floyd video a groundswell of unease at police action in England, an unease that competed with the cuddly images of British police that have prevailed for decades in England, promulgated by  TV series from Z Cars in the 60’s all the way through to Inspector Morse and  Lewis of 2015. The bedrock moral position of these British TV cop series was the fundamental decency of the British police force.  There were of course voices that dissented from this cosy view, many of them black. The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in his poetry/song collection Dread Beat and Blood (1975) in particular denounced the London police force’s Special Patrol Group (SPG: similar to Nigeria’s SARS). The SPG was disbanded in 1987. But police misconduct in England persisted. Most recently a documentary film called Ultra Violence (November 2020) held an unwavering gaze on continuing British police force brutality and state killing, particularly of black people, platforming the voices of numerous families who had lost members to brutal police hands and who have bravely campaigned at grassroots level against this ultra-violence. Something snapped here upon the release of the George Floyd video. Finally, abuse that had been hidden away, dismissed, denied or contested was caught on film in broad daylight and shown across the world. People in England were roused to righteous indignation. George Floyd, they were saying, is our experience too. Let me pause now to unpack the ‘our’ in the statement ‘our experience’.  Because it signals an important shift, and one that is observable in the photos taken of BLM events across England. There are black folk in the photos of protestors, yes, but also by many young white people: White people, especially the young ones, were owning their part in the problem. It is this shift that holds promise. Black power salutes being wielded by white youths in solidarity with their black friends. White privilege was finally being understood.  Of course, there is a backlash. The invasion of the US Capitol by White Supremacists is the most recent example. But no battle for justice is ever easy.  And in so far as the young people in England are on the side of fairness and prepared to stand up and be counted,  campaigning in public for an end to the brutality of the unjust use of force by police, in that measure, we can contemplate the future here with some confidence. Yes, it is a long game.  But this old head says that youth, mobilised in the cause of justice, is unstoppable and will bring about radical change. That’s my view from where I stand here in Manchester, England. How do you see it from where you are?   Sincerely,   Pete Kalu, Manchester, UK.   Photographer: Naomi Kalu A British Council  International Digital Collaboration Project @LitBritish...

The National Trust and Napoleon’s Hat

The National Trust and Napoleon’s Hat I first met Napoleon at a sign language class. He wore a bulky black greatcoat, a two-cornered hat and apologised for his presence, explaining he was due to meet his troops later in the day at Bassano but had dropped by through a portal. We students all rolled with it and, as weeks became months it dawned on us the young man really thought he was Napoleon. Eyebrows were raised. Some would make the sign for madness but I felt there was nothing to see here – the man was happy as Napoleon, he was a perfectly civil guy, and, if somebody had to represent Napoleon in this world, he was doing a fine job of it. I confess, I kind of fell in love with him. He lit up the college and whenever he appeared suddenly your own real-world problems looked small-small. How else could you feel when faced with a guy worrying about the oncoming battle at Waterloo? Abhorrent to me then, was the idea that some mean-spirited puritanical psychiatrist might try to strip him of his delusion. What would it achieve? Who wanted to see him reduced to his prosaic birth name, rocking in a corner of the class, and all of us a little duller, no longer lit by his light? Some delusions are fine. Let them be. Nations like their delusions too. America: Sweet Land of Liberty! That the United States was arrived at by the genocide of the indigenous population, the subjection of enslaved Africans, and the brutal expansion of its core lands by war and subjugation is not a story many Americans want to hear. Indeed, the myth of America’s rise by moral exceptionalism holds such a strong grip on the American imagination they are offended when you raise such contrary facts.  So too France. Land of Rousseau. Of Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! But not for the enslaved who eked out an existence under the French whip across the Caribbean. And of course, England. England never had its Rousseau. The closest was Cromwell but he arrived a century too early. British belief in Enlightenment values was for a long period distinctly untroubled by any doubt around slavery or British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. In a neat bit of classificatory footwork, those enslaved by the English were relegated to the category of lesser humans, and the colonising, enslaving drive recast as a civilizing mission undertaken by the noble white man as part of the ‘white man’s burden’. It was a fine act of national sophistry.  And it was supplemented with myth, with monument as the answer to the question: How best can we chisel the story of our greatness, our graciousness, our nobility into history? The Egyptians were the primus inter pares chisellers. Their monuments did the all-time- greatest job of proclaiming the brilliance of their Pharaohs. The voice Shelley gave them, feels just right: Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! So, what about  the National Trust properties? They were often donated during a period of dynastic distress. Typically, the owners hit hard times after the Second World War and offered the crumbling mansion to the nation with an implied (or perhaps actual, legal) codicil that the Trust look after not only the bricks, but the family story too: the sentiment – if not the letter – a plea that the National Trust preserve not only the land and buildings but also the story of our family’s glory, our ancestors’ sagacity, nobility, generosity, vision etc.  The Egyptian’s chiselled, Pharaoh voice is the only voice that distinctly survives from that era, no one else could afford the chisels and chisellers. Some of the country homes have their dynastic story leaded into stained glass windows or imbued in leather-bound mahogany desks. But, unlike the pyramids, English country homes were built and furnished at a time when recording had become cheap and when cataloguing, archiving, keeping copious records had become de rigeur as part of the general colonising project. Naturally, historians – those crawlers over documents – have wormed their way into these archives  to gather contextual information, and in doing so have found themselves querying the story of unalloyed nobility and generosity that the country homes by their substance enact. Such scribblers as UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership project (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/), and the research of a body of treasonous academic folk such as Marian Gwynn, Corinne Fowler (@ColonialCountr1) and Katie Donington have followed on the heels of England-based slave trade historians, James Walvin and Alan Rice, in querying the country homes’ long-buffed, saintly image – with such evidential accuracy that their research is seen as an attack on the English national myth no less. Cue outrage. Alacrity is abroad and everywhere. America. France. England. Nations with deluded ideas of their past. Nations hugging their myths and unwilling to absorb information that runs counter to those myths. The archival diggers  are denounced as traitors. Unpatriotic. Yet do not all myths of Empire founder? Do not all monuments meant to fix myths and perpetuate stories of glory, go the way of Ozymandias, eroded by the slow truths that time brings to them? As Shelley has it of Ozymandias: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. Or does a nation find a way to allow...

Black Lives Matter Manchester, UK, Summer 2020 Photo Gallery

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Black Rain Falling by Jacob Ross – a writerly review by Pete Kalu

  Black Rain Falling is a cracking crime novel by Jacob Ross, the second in his ‘Digger’ Digson series, set in the fictional Caribbean island of Camaho. Crime writers occupying the highest plinths of the crime fiction pantheon – Mosley, Neely, Hammett, Highsmith and Chandler – might give Ross a nod for his achievement: he has a consummate talent for balancing the various energies needed for a contemporary crime story – action, suspense, sustained multi-faceted evolution of major characters – all the while weaving a yarn that engrosses. It helps that Ross has an indecent raft of sheer writing verve. This writerly review looks at some elements of what Ross does. Setting, Modernity, the crime novel and Black Rain Falling The term modernity was coined by Baudelaire in his essay, The Painter of Modern Life. He saw it as inextricably bound up with the city and the shock of the new: ‘the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis’. One of crime fiction’s earliest pioneers was Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s short story Murder at the Rue Morgue is often advanced as the very first detective story, and is set in the city. Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes stories lifted many ideas intrinsic to our understanding of ‘the city’ from Poe and from the French pioneer, Gaboriau. So it came to be that detective fiction and the city became linked in the popular imagination. When this genre history is hooked to black presence, which in the UK and in USA has often been clustered around cities, then it is no surprise that the major black practitioners of crime fiction – Barbara Neely, Walter Mosley, Attica Locke in the USA; in the UK, Dreda Say Mitchell, Courttia Newland and Mike Phillips, among others, have invariably set their novels in a fictitious or actual city. Ross’s ‘Digger’ series is different. The action takes place on the fictitious Caribbean island of Camaho (pop. 100,000). Ross himself was born in Grenada, and his love of the Caribbean permeates Black Rain Falling. His Camaho world is a particularly Caribbean mix of the urban town/city, and the village. Ross’s other works (particularly his novel Pynter Bender, but also many of his short stories), evidence a keen poetic sensibility and, in venturing into crime fiction, Ross has not abandoned this gift: a sense of poetry infuses his crime novels. Nowhere does Ross’s lyricism ride higher than when he describes the Camaho natural environment. There are sentences other writers would die for in the descriptions. Here are a few examples: ‘All month it had been like this: dry, dusting, sapping; the air filled with the lament of suffering livestock that were hugging the shadows of he forest receding all the way to the hilltops. With all that dryness a pusson felt afraid to strike a match.’ ‘The slope of a hill, the type and thickness of the vegetation made a sound when the wind ran over it, that a pusson heard nowhere else in the world. Up here, among the ferns and bamboo and ancient thick-headed trees, the Belvedere mountains sobbed and mourned.’ (Shades of Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) ‘Old Hope village spread out across the hillside on which we lived. Directly ahead were the foothills, pulling my gaze all the way up to the Mardi Gras mountains – purple-dark in the early light.’   Western rationality, African Cosmology and Black Rain Falling Western rationalism has often been the go-to default for crime fiction, indeed there are aspects of the  crime genre, especially its centring of science, rationality and logic, that make crime fiction in many of its iterations a paean to Western Progress and rationalism. However, there are other cosmologies in existence, and black writers have often explored the literary potential of giving the narrative breath of life to non-Western ways of seeing the world (egs: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Bluebird; many of the short stories of Leone Ross and Ironesen Okojie). Black crime writers do this while still maintaining some of the genre’s standard detective tropes of logic and rationalism. Where is Black Rain Falling positioned in this Western materialism – Africanist cosmology dialectic? Early on in the novel, a glimmer of non-Western cosmology is given. Digson tells of how his grandmother, who raised him, described the world to him: ‘Olokun is the god-woman of the Dark waters. She rule the bottom of the ocean, yunno. The only one who know what happen to all them African who never reach this side of the Atlantic.’  As with Digson’s grandmother, the Camaho rural women are the major repositories of knowledge based on an alternative cosmology. They carry a spiritual connection with the land and the history of the people within their customs, manners and oral stories. When Digson sees a group of women gathering urgently: ‘They brought to mind my grandmother, who had mothered me, muttering in a closed room with other women that she’d gathered around her. I remembered the secrecy of their ritual cleansing – women, preparing one of their own for the trouble to come.’ ‘These elders would be carrying in their heads the family tree of every person on Kara Island and their connections to each other. They still named their children...

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly: a writers review, and notes by Pete Kalu

  When 15-year-old Nathan’s older brother Al (17), kills himself, Nathan is distraught. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to his brother’s act. And The Stars Were Burning Brightly follows Nathan as he navigates his grief and tries to uncover what pushed his brother over the edge. Framed this way, And The Stars follows the classic ‘victim-of-crime’ crime novel genre dynamic as expounded by two masters of the genre  Boileau and Narcejac (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boileau-Narcejac for more on them). As they put it: ‘One becomes a victim as soon as one is present at events whose definitive meaning one is unable to decipher … The crime story, instead of signalling the triumph of logic, has then to consecrate the failure of rational thought: it is precisely for this reason that its hero is a victim’.  The victim-of-crime novel is a study in the anguish of the loved ones who survive the victim’s death.  And the survivors’ attempts to find a reason why is of course doomed to be unsatisfying since, on an existential plane, nothing discovered can ever bring the victim back. Specifically, Nathan’s quest is a means for him to wrestle with his sense of culpability: he had not noticed trouble brewing in his brother’s life. What part did I play in his death? Nathan asks himself: could I have done anything differently and prevented it? The tale is told in the first person through three viewpoints: that of Nathan, of Al’s close friend, Megan, and, using phone messages and other epistolary devices, that of Al himself. It is a victim novel, but there is also a very sweet love story swirling around the fraught issue of Al’s suicide, a love story delicately stitched and sensitively developed. As the plot thickens, some topical Young Adult themes come to the fore. On of those is the nature of identity, particularly, the strange way in which one person can know and yet completely not-know another person. In the eyes of Nathan, Al was perfect. Yet, in the eyes of his school peer group,  Nathan learns, Al was a geek: too brainy, too remote, uncool. The reader discovers that Al was a talented painter and had a wide-ranging curiosity for subjects as diverse as Astronomy, Biology, Botany and Maths. Al was ostracised by the working-class youth culture he lived within. Are working-class communities (or, perhaps, on a different analysis, all youth cultures) inherently hostile to gifted yet introverted young people? If so, how do young dreamers and thinkers navigate that? Other themes developed in the novel include how social media can make bullying more intense and inescapable; and the dangers of online identity deceptions such as catfishing. The novel is set in Wythenshawe, Manchester, and the characters speak at times using Wythenshawe-inflected language patterns and phrases (such as using ‘proper’ as an intensifier as in: ‘that’s proper good’). Nathan, the main protagonist, is of mixed heritage, his absent father black, his mother white. The conjunction of blackness and Wythenshawe speech may be a departure of sorts in that I cannot recall that any writer before has given voice to such a character. Across town (ie Manchester), the crime writer, Karline Smith has delivered a series of novels and stories in the voice of inner city South Central Manchester where West Indian Englishes still infuse third generation black language codes. Jawando is doing something different. I recognised the Wythenshawe speech (I went to school in Wythenshawe). It quickly becomes normal within the novel, and so invisible after the first few chapters, and it is a deep pleasure, a small but important act of assertion, to see this set down in a book.  One of the bravest and most difficult things a writer can do is take their own trauma and explore it through art. Sometimes, by doing so, the artist tames the trauma. I say, sometimes because it is not always possible, the process can kill you (see arguably,  the life story of Van Gogh, an artist whose life and its relationship with his art  is featured significantly in And The Stars). But go into that trauma, an artist sometimes must.  It was a risk that, for Jawando, proved very much worth taking.  And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is a compelling read, dealing with difficult subjects deftly and compassionately, and wholly without any sense of...

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton: a writers review by Pete Kalu

    On February 20, 1910 in Philadelphia, a black man (Edward), drove a railroad trolley into a department store, killing a number of people, injuring others. Why did he do it?  This is the plot premise of Remembered, a superbly evocative and moving novel by Yvonne Battle-Felton. The novel looks at America during the time of plantation slavery and at sixty years of slavery’s long-tailed aftermath there. Remembered is written primarily in the voice of Edward’s mother, Spring, and oscillates between events in 1910 and the formative years of Spring’s life, including Spring’s enslavement, her life as an enslaved person and after emancipation  in the early 1860’s. The narrative stitches the connections between these different times to deliver a haunting  tapestry of the horror, jangle and stink of the era. Narrator, Spring is shadowed by her dead sister, Tempe. Early in the novel, Edward is lying in a coma on his hospital death-bed. Spring and the ghostly Tempe argue over what happens next. If Edward dies, they agree, he needs to die right: to come to the afterlife with full knowledge. Tempe points out he does not know the full story of his mother. Spring says she will tell him, but ‘Either I’ll tell it my way or it won’t get told.’  Spring proceeds to do just that. We learn the story of Spring’s origins and wider family. The telling is Spring’s, and of Spring’s family,  but the novel also opens out as an act of remembrance for all those individuals who endured through slavery. Their stories are not captured in official documents. White writers and administrators did not see fit to record their lives. Pen and paper stories were not written down by enslaved Africans for obvious reasons. Addressing this historical erasure and recovering the stories of people like Spring is a path embarked upon most determinedly by Toni Morrison (eg. Beloved). Of course, there is much unearthed by these stories that white society might –  then and now – want to look away from. The cruelty that the Philadelphian Walker plantation Patriarch meted out in Remembered parallels the degradation forced upon enslaved  Africans working on Jamaican plantations such as those of James Robert Wedderburn ( https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146643591) and the notorious Thomas Thistlewood  (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146651067).  In venturing into these waters, Battle-Felton joins Morrison in a commitment to ‘speak the unspeakable’, to borrow a Morrison phrase. As a writer, I was interested in some philosophical questions that Remembered had to work through. What was it like in those times – not on the poetic or epic scale – but on the level of the day-to-day, the level at which the novel as a form excels? Can these horrors be described and at the same time juxtaposed and made to seem an organic part of the wider world of that time? How do you balance horror and the everyday? Who were we then, as human beings?  How did we see the world? The writer, Henry James, in a letter, wrote that the task of recreating the consciousness of those who lived in long-ago times was ‘almost impossible’. Is it?  The other large question I was interested in concerns how the novel as a form is employed by black writers. A novel establishes a world and in doing so constitutes a world view. Is that world view necessarily Western?  Remembered sits in conversation with Beloved by Toni Morrison,  The Famished Road by Ben Okri and Their Eyes Were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. In all three there is a sense of Africanist cosmology running through, signalled most strongly in Remembered by the ease with which the dead sister, Tempe arrives in scenes where her sister, Spring is present.   Moving to a radical black arts type critique, another question raised by such novels, though much less spoken about, is the Malcolm X-esque question: how did white people manage to do this to us? Were we complicit? Weak? Fools? In that mode, Remembered stirs, within a black reader at least, an incandescent rage, and for moments, as the degradation, rape, humiliation is described, there is a reader-character unity with the black characters in Remembered  as  explanations are bewilderingly advanced, including, in a moment of splitting, the idea advanced by the patriarch slave master Walker himself, that white people got ‘nothing but the devil’ in them. There are harrowing scenes in Remembered. But also moments of sublime transcendence. One of the most delightful is Battle-Felton’s answer to the question, what was that moment of freedom like for enslaved Africans in Philadelphia when slavery was finally abolished?  Of course, the news of abolition does not filter to everyone all at once, but in bits and pieces. And there features in Remembered an almost dazed phase of drifting and wandering of the newly free, an assuming of new names, a beginning of new directions. Battle-Felton renders this numinously and imaginatively: I’ve not encountered in literature this moment expressed so evocatively before. I’m always interested in a novel’s stylistics: the particular technical choices made by the author to bring a story to life.  Here are some tentative notes on Battle-Felton’s choices for Remembered: It is written partly in the first person ‘I’. This sets some limits on prose style with these sections (for more on this, see, for example the first five short sections of James’ Wood’s  How Novels Work on ‘free indirect speech’) so the...