For someone at the start of their secondary school years, the early 1970s BBC Time-Life magazine ‘The British Empire’ made for a fascinating weekly read over the course of its 98 issues.
It was the first ever part-work magazine that was specifically linked to a BBC television series and, as with the broadcast programme, the subject of ‘Empire’ and its presentation was controversial in the eye of the dominions if not to those for whom it was a nostalgic echo of when Britannia ruled the waves.
To the thirteen year old me, the magazine’s depictions of the slave trade were horrific. Horrific, but far away. After all, although we were ‘offcomers’ to my home town of Kendal, we were Caucasian just like the locals and weren’t exposed to the realities of racism in the 1970s.
So, despite being rather shocked by the appallingly-racist sitcom Love Thy Neighbour and bemused by the peculiarity that was the Black and White Minstrel Show, we were, in those days, quite unaware of the offensiveness, for example, of white actors ‘blacking up’ in other TV productions.
It wasn’t until I was a student in the east end of London during the autumn of 1977 that I learned about some of the realities of racism. Although my stay in London was short, for a part of that time I shared a room with Gwyn, a young man of colour from the then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) .
We were lodging with a senile landlady on the fifth floor of a tower block, the bucolically-but-deceptively named Barley Mow Estate on Oak Lane in Poplar.
Our landlady’s senility was a problem (lettuce for breakfast, anyone?) and she should have been properly cared for by her family. Instead they encouraged her to take in students as lodgers so there was someone there to keep an eye on her.
But that wasn’t our real problem. Our real problem was the hostility shown to Gwyn by some of the area’s locals whenever he, or we, ventured out. It was more than an eye-opener to a naïve north country lad. (Due to my accommodation problems I dropped out after one term. I don’t know if Gwyn lasted the course or what became of him.)
Needless to say, in view of my experience back then, if only as a mere observer, the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and the downing of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and its dumping in Bristol Harbour, has resonated with me and I do hope that it leads to a substantive change for the better and not just the usual hand-wringing of privileged UK politicos
Here’s the limerick
When the time finally came to take stock
It never was really a shock
For the people of BAME
To attribute the blame
To the man they’ve just put in the dock!‘
I’ll leave the last word to the historian and TV presenter David Olusoga…