Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Charlotte Sq. 23rd August 2018
After three events where the emphasis was on performance – I’ve seen four poets and two storytellers so far at the Book Festival – it almost felt strange to be in the Baillie Gifford for an hour’s chat. The main result of that strangeness, however, is that the event-goer is more aware that there is a book to promote. And what a book! I’m not a great fan of graphic novels. I own two, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta because I like its anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist stance, and Mark Russell’s The Flintstones because I appreciate its satire. I might soon own three. So let’s talk about the book first, and then the event itself.
If any of you are familiar with Dix’s artwork – it’s difficult to call it cartooning – you’ll be used to seeing the human condition portrayed in all its venality, every vice expressed by a distortion of the features, but that distortion conveyed in lessening of features rather than complexity. A mouth becomes a slit, eyes become sullen and narrow, noses extend like Pinocchio’s after a hard day’s mendacity. Yet somehow he manages to convey three-dimensional depth, so if he needs to be complex, if, say, he needs to have someone wrapped in the coils of a dragon, he can startle the viewer by suddenly toggling complexity. Google him and you’ll miss by a mile, you’ll come up with German expressionist Otto Dix… but hang on a mo, it’s not as though there aren’t actually some similarities there, there is indeed something profoundly expressionistic about his work. Google “GRIMREALITY” to get an idea of his… er… normal fare. The cover of the book being promoted today, Dull Margaret, pares down his style. The lank-haired, Gollum-like protagonist stares sullenly at you, her face grey, her hair darker grey, the background a different grey. A peek inside at the flat, wet landscape she inhabits, and suddenly we’re out of Otto-Dix-Land and into somewhere more akin to the set of Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba.
The filmic reference is appropriate. For frame after frame there is little in the way of dialogue, or even monologue, and no commentary or descriptive text. Everything is conveyed as atmosphere. The book was, after all, originally conceived by Jim Broadbent as a movie script. Listening to Jim reading out the opening paragraph of the script, describing the waterlogged landscape and the emergence of Dull Margaret herself, naked from under the ooze, dragging eels traps after her, it is easy to understand the word-barren, frame-after-frame presentation. A friend of Dix’s has created a forty-three second animated realisation of that opening sequence, and it is perfect. The whole thing must be realised; the clip got its own round of applause from the Baillie Gifford audience.
Jim Broadbent got the idea for the story whilst contemplating Bruegel’s painting Dulle Griet (‘Mad Meg’), and not having any “interesting acting” going on he set about writing a script. As the script progressed, the protagonist became less and less like the strange, strong woman striding sword-in-hand past the gates of Hell. She became a sorry wight, and her tale became a fairy story, it’s Grimm (in fact it’s bloody grimm!), it’s Andersenesque, or as Jim would have it “a cross between Victoria Wood and Hammer Horror.” It’s a moral tale, about the illusion of having one’s wishes granted, and about a diet of eels. It’s setting is a cross between a wasteland and Jim’s beloved Lincolnshire Marshes.
I’ve never heard Jim Broadbent referred to as a National Treasure, but he is one. He’s a deeply serious person, but as an actor has given us some achingly funny performances. Teamed with Miriam Margoles, she as a medieval Spanish Infanta and he as her interpreter in Blackadder, he managed to get laughs in total blackout; teamed with Miriam again in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol he was a hilarious Prince Albert to her Queen Victoria. He has been in the Harry Potter canon, he has been in Cloud Atlas, he has been half of the National Theatre of Brent, he has been in just about everything that required a character actor if his calibre. I first saw him on stage in Ken Campbell’s production of Neil Oram’s marathon play The Warp, at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 1981. Outside the Fringe he has never seriously played a female role, so it is hardly surprising (well, is it?) that he wrote the title role of Dull Margaret for himself. Persuading a production company to take it on, however, didn’t happen – “Partly because I wanted to play the leading lady, and partly because it fitted no known genre!” – and by some arcane process Jim eventually found himself in contact with Dix and turning it all into a graphic novel.
And that’s where this Book Festival event really comes in. Daniel Hahn was in the chair, though what chair was the subject of a moment or two of faux bickering between him, Jim, and Dix. Daniel, himself a writer and translator, is a frequent presence at the Book Festival, and knows how to conduct a three-hand interview/discussion; but even he was unprepared for the sudden kettledrumming of the monsoon that struck the roof of the BG tent. A quick recovery – everyone on stage got a hand-mic. Well, actually Dix and Jim shared one, but what the hey! The book, said Daniel, is “extraordinary and beautiful and strange.” As I said, Jim is a deeply serious person, so this wasn’t an event full of guffaws. It was, however, full of gentle laughter – both Jim and Dix know what is actually funny in life, and what has been incongruously funny in the production of this extraordinary and beautiful and strange book. “I love her,” says Jim of his gauche, gaunt, venal creation. “Jim loves Margaret,” says Dix, “but I like the old man who says nothing, and adores her, and gets beaten regularly, and adores her even more after the beatings!” They discussed the eels, the starving dog that turns up later as a bloated corpse, the Faustian bargain that Dull Margaret strikes to escape the tedium and poverty and drenching of her life, the leeching of colour that allows a sudden gold or blood-red to leap out at the reader’s eye.
Working from the full script, Dix said, was a matter of saying to himself, of the various scenes, “That’ll work over two pages… that’ll work over four pages…” and so on. Thus the finished work grew. He had several attempts at the protagonist. “This was really exciting,” said Jim, “because Dix works in the early hours of the morning, so I’d get up and open my computer, and these images would have arrived overnight.” The first realisation was too plump-bodied for someone who existed solely on a diet of eels; the second was too neurotic, just not dull enough; the next was too fragile, she needed to be stronger to survive Margaret’s harsh lifestyle, and so on. “We didn’t want her to look like me,” said Jim, “even though when I was pushing the film script I said that part of her tragedy was that she looks like me.”
I often say that an hour is not enough for one of these events. Strangely, for all the fascination on offer, it was about right for Jim and Dix. Neither is verbose. As a result, there was time for a leisurely, quarter-hour Q and A session before we all trundled next door for the book signing, by which time we knew all we needed to know about how the book was conceived and realised. Pitched spot on, I’d say. And I think I’ll ask for Dull Margaret in my Christmas box. Enough said.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre. 3.15, Tues. 21st August 2018
I have encountered a major problem with the Book Festival – I have run out of superlatives. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been to a bum event yet. This year I’ve seen the Poet Laureate AND the Makar, and poetry-wise it doesn’t get much better than that. So I’m at a loss as to how to make this review different. I could try to write it in Scots of course – I ken wir ain leid weel eneuch – or at least code-switch between Scots and review-ese the way Jackie does between Scots and a more standard English.*
This event took place in the main theatre and it was packed, as you would expect for such a consistently popular figure at the Festival. The format was simple: after a few opening remarks from journalist and broadcaster Ruth Wishart, Jackie read poems from her new book Bantam, after which Ruth conducted a brief interview, moderated some questions from the body o’ the kirk, and the event finished with a couple more poems. All standard fare. “There’s a public health warning involved here,” quipped Ruth, “listening to Jackie read her own poetry can seriously damage your tear ducts.” Aye, well, maybe, but mainly from tears of laughter, and gentle ones at that, but nothing more. Jackie may have “one of the most infectious giggles in the business” (another of Ruth’s quips), but what really marks her poetry is its accessibility. That, let’s face it, is what the job of Makar is all about. The poetry is never facile, it can rhyme and it can rhythm with the best of them, but it never becomes a jingle of doggerel or a cut-up grocery list of prose. And it can make us chuckle, chuckle with recognition as a childhood memory or the pen-portrait of a parent or grandparent chimes or parallels one of our own, and does so without losing the signature of Jackie herself. I mean – who else could make us smile by re-telling the story of an eleven-year-old experiencing her first period whilst on a family holiday in Avielochan?
Jackie’s poetry is so direct, so clear, so personal, that she has to remind us that it’s dangerous to assume that every poem is autobiographical. As most poets do, Jackie constructs a ‘voice’ for each poem; many may be a version of her own, but some are not. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, I know we’re savvy to this truth of poetry-making, but if Jackie feels it worth reinforcing, then I’m with her. Her speaking voice, her delivery, is another matter; a major part of her directness, her ability to connect with an audience, has to do with its liquid, modulated treble, its inflections, its rise and fall. Sometimes she teases, almost like a stand-up comic, but without a comic’s abrasiveness, and it’s not us but herself she’s teasing: “… a packed tent… on a weekday afternoon… did you not have anywhere better to go?” And sometimes it is us: “… there’s a lot of old Scots words in this poem that some people might not understand… but that’s life.” The Scots words, the holiday locations of Ardtornish, Avielochan, and Rannoch Moor – no, we had no trouble with any of that.
Some of Jackie’s material today was on politically safe ground. A poem with an anti-Brexit flavour to it, poking fun at Nigel Farage, works well in overwhelmingly pro-Remain Écosse – yes, this dichotomy with Brexitshire is still hanging around up here – after all, she does not have to pander to anyone else in Britain, her manor is north of the Tweed-Solway line, even though she now actually lives south of it. Part of the discussion between Ruth and Jackie touched on a statement by Ali Smith (who was in the audience) to the effect that all art is political. “I think if you say something’s not political,” said Jackie, “it then becomes political… the act of doing something non-political is political,” freely admitting that this was a conundrum. There is a difference between ‘political’ and ‘polemical’, and it’s safe to say that Jackie’s material is not the latter. This is, of course, despite the lifelong communist radicalism of her Glaswegian adoptive mother and father – Ruth queried whether, to a child, the role of a ‘Party Organiser’ must have sounded like a grand job, a matter of blowing up balloons and putting sausages on little sticks. Jackie’s parents are now quite elderly, and she treated us to an impersonation of her father asking how long her term in office was and, when being told it was five years, saying briskly, “Oh well, we’ll just have tae see oot yer term in office, then!”
There was only one awkward moment in during the event, which came when a questioner referred to the audience, and to poetry’s usual comsumer-base, as ‘middle-class’. Several people reacted to that, and Jackie herself reminded the questioner that it was her task as Makar to contact and connect with all kinds of people within Scotland, irrespective of class. The questioner was made to feel a wee bittie abashed, and that left me sitting there contemplating the fact that I too had often (but silently) made the same observation about my fellow Book-Festival-goers. I think we are, by and large, of that particular social bracket, but for some reason we don’t like to be reminded of the word ‘class’.
Anyway, as regards hearing from Jackie, chuckling with her, and listening to some of those familiarly friendly poems from Bantam, the hour passed by in a blink, and I could have done with another hour. Like I said, I’ve put in an order for a fresh supply of superlatives.
*Don’t get me started on the status of Scots, or we’ll be here for the next month.
Afua Hirsch opened her talk by reading her new essay in the Freedom Papers, a series of 50 essays commissioned by the Book Festival on the theme of freedom and published as a supplement to the 18th issue of Gutter Magazine. Reading it to a background beat gave it a taste of spoken word dub poetry. Her personal story outlined in her Freedom Paper essay is a distillation of the ideas in her book Brit(ish), which gave us a useful overview of the issues to be debated. Journalist and author Chita Ramaswamy was a calm, measured and insightful chair and the conversation naturally flowed. Hirsch’s talk, quoting from author Toni Morrison that the ‘personal is the political’ invited us to see the connection in the struggle to understand and construct a clear identity as a mixed-race British woman with the need to debate and understand the ramifications of Britain’s history as an imperial power.
She began by deconstructing a common but well-meaning phrase from white friends and associates, the supposedly reassuring “We don’t see you as Black.” Attempting to pinpoint the source of discomfort embedded within such a comment highlights that Blackness itself is associated in our mainstream narrative with poverty, criminality and backwardness. As issues of identity are key to political movements such as Brexit, she underscored the link between the current rise in fascism and a sense of threat to constructed white identities that are based on falsehoods. The infamous Enoch Powell, famous for his incendiary ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, could speak Urdu and longed for lost imperial grandeur, and she used this as a prime example of how imperial nostalgia can feed directly into racism. Powell’s musings that someone of West Indian or Asian heritage will always be viewed as ‘Other’ in a majority-white country is something that is sadly all too common today.
Both Ramaswamy and Hirsch agreed that the freedom to choose British identity is a fragile one; subject to the political whims of the ruling elite and the groundswell of feeling in the country as a whole. Although the extreme violence and hostility that previous generations of Black and Asian immigrants had to suffer has eased, institutional racism hasn’t gone away. Hirsch postulated that the new battleground is in the freedom to self-identify, particularly for those who can’t easily fit into a rigid category. Ramaswamy said that she greatly appreciated Brit(ish) for clearly articulating such common experiences for people of racialised and complex identities in Britain. Hirsch is pleased to see that space is finally opening up for discourse on these matters in Britain, but it’s certainly not an easy ride. She shared anecdotes of being invited to speak on The Pledge on Sky News, and attempting to avoid debating race when pitted against hostile white and right-wing commentators determined to invalidate her experiences of racism in Britain. She spoke of the exhaustion in continually fighting for one’s experience of racism to even be recognised as a legitimate reality. She shared the great effort involved in channelling the emotion that’s continually provoked by recalling disturbing experiences into the resources necessary to make points in a more cerebral way. Chita agreed that as a fellow journalist and middle-class British woman of colour, one is often accused of playing the victim and expected to remain silent when meeting a lack of empathy over the impact of continual racist slights.
Hirsch has been very courageous in exposing her personal story to potential attack by narrow minded members of the old white elite clinging to an outdated narrative. Some feathers are bound to be ruffled by exposing the hypocrisy of situations where British citizens, even those born here, are often made to feel like they don’t belong in a place they consider home. Although surprised but comforted by the overwhelmingly positive reception by readers, she’s observed two types of negative trends in the reactions to the book by pundits. Firstly, contempt, exemplified in a scathing review of her book by a Times journalist, strongly implying that she was attacking the country of her birth and upbringing. She wryly commented that at least a review of this nature removed the last shred of doubt that these archaic viewpoints are still very much in our midst. The other was gratitude, or more specifically, annoyance at the supposed lack of gratitude by British-born and bred second-generation immigrants to the county where they have been ‘allowed’ to live by a tolerant, benevolent majority. The outraged reaction to the Windrush scandal across the spectrum was bolstered by stories of “good immigrants”; because post-war Caribbean immigrants and their families had earned their right to stay with hard work and positive contributions, rather than the simple fact that people arriving in Britain at that time were not only invited here by the British government, but already legally classified as British citizens.
She spoke of her personal family history, which is outlined in depth in the book, and how grateful, in fact, her Ghanaian grandfather was to have the opportunity to go to Cambridge and raise the bar for the perception of African people at that time. There was no luxury of failure! She spoke of a strange coincidence when investigating local history; discovering that the windmill close to her childhood home in Wimbledon was where Baden-Powell wrote his Scouting Bible. The irony of this lies in the fact that he aided in the destruction of Kumasi in Ghana that turned some of her own family members into refugees. Even those handy survival tips he’s famous for he had learned directly from Ghanaian forest guides. A prime example that demonstrates that history framed as simply local in a country with such a huge imperial footprint will have often have complicated global connections.
This should be of interest to all, and be fully part of our education system. Yet Afua has been in the centre of the complex controversies developing around the issue of statues and what they represent. National heroes such as Nelson and Churchill are generally remembered in a one-dimensional way, as she developed in depth in her recent documentary ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes’. The mention of their more unsavoury attitudes and acts creates severe cognitive dissonance in those who cling to false binaries. She quoted a figure of 70% of British GDP coming from sugar grown on slave plantations in the Caribbean, but without the time to delve into the complexities of the effects of colonialism on our relative national economies, that statistic had nothing to ground it. At least that tidbit may have at least given some audience members some necessary food for thought. As Hirsch had mentioned, some conservative forces wish for History at school to be a celebratory subject. However, if we decided as a nation not to gloss over or omit the more difficult issues, we would do well to also celebrate those who fought for freedom from all forms of oppression.
This discussion, chaired by journalist and author Afua Hirsch, was between two writers of speculative fiction focusing on exploring the kinds of societies that can be envisaged by the genre. Prayaag Akbar was born in Calcutta in 1982, and has degrees in Economics from Dartmouth College and Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. Known for his commentary on marginalisation in India, he discussed his debut novel, Leila. Karen Lord, a speculative fiction writer with a multifaceted background as a physicist, diplomat and soldier, was born in Barbados in 1968. With a Science degree from Toronto, a Masters in Science and Technology Policy from Strathclyde, and PhD in Sociology of Religion from Bangor, Lord is the author of several books, including the award-winning Redemption in Indigo. She discussed her second novel, Best of All Possible Worlds, published in 2014.
Akbar read an excerpt from Leila in the voice of mother Shalini, reflecting on the moment when a sinister mob kidnapped their three year old daughter, and imagining what she might be like now, sixteen years later. As we shared in the poignant memory of her little girl, we could easily imagine her innocent face as ‘he pinched her cheek between his hairy knuckles’. His book is set in a fictional Indian city based on both Bombay and Delhi, exploring the many societal divisions within cities that result from caste, class and religion. Leila is set in a so-called dystopian ‘near future’, but many of the horrors foretold within it, as the author stressed, are already coming to pass. Best of all Possible Worlds takes place in the distant future on planet Cygnus Beta, filled with refugees from various disasters, and explores issues of what makes a successful multicultural society. The Sadiri people have been running from genocide and are now desperate to preserve their culture. We were treated to tantalising glimpses of dialogue and metaphors from the book, such as “All Sadiri may be considered family”, and “all my knowledge of him was newly minted.”
Lord explained some of her complex process of invention, including the influences from experiences in the many places she’s visited and would still like to visit, such as the forests of Guyana, Australia’s Sydney, and the island of Malta. As the reader is taken on a ‘road-trip’ of the planet, New Zealand’s magical landscapes, known to her and many other outsiders from the Lord of the Rings movies, also make an appearance. She draws much from her own socio-economic research, so much so that one reviewer sniped that it was a story of ‘bureaucrats in love’. Many a sideways swipe at Barbadians from other Caribbean people are based on this ‘Little England’ stereotype, but seeing government through romantic eyes is a refreshing one, however you look at it. Hirsch wryly made the point that even the idea of government as competent and positive is unusual.
Hirsch heralded Best as an optimistic and positive book, with its celebration of successful multiculturalism and peace contrasting with the inverted message of Leila, which faces up squarely to the terrifying challenges currently presenting themselves on the Indian sub-continent. Akbar, as an Indian Muslim, has personally experienced an increasing level of discomfort when making everyday choices like choosing where to live. Protagonist Shalini is a Hindu married to a Muslim, a situation that reflects modern tensions and often fatal interventions in interfaith-unions. Lord laughed as she hoped that she wasn’t being overly optimistic, but explained that the present reality of the multi-cultural Caribbean is very much reflected in Cygnus Beta. Despite some difficulties, distinct groups of people can be absorbed as part of a larger community while simultaneously holding on to aspects from where they originated, with the idea that group identity is both natural and positive.
Hirsch was the perfect chair, as a journalist, author and TV personality who is currently at the heart of British debate around questions of identity and politics. The opportunity to draw in voices on this topic from outside the UK underscored the global and highly pressing nature of these issues. In his novel, Akbar takes square aim at the historical inequalities of India as expressed through the caste system, but also notes the class divisions, social exclusion and invisibility rampant within the U.K. The reality came as a shock to him when living in a poor area just outside Oxford, and only after his lack of middle-class, academic visitors, realised it was an area that no don would fear to tread. The walls in the city of his book are there to divide those from different castes from each other, which is a potent symbol for the hardening of social divisions worldwide.
The contrast between the pairing was useful, but also the parallels. Both authors agreed that embracing a multifaceted identity obfuscates those who, often including UK publishers, demand that people and things should fit into just one convenient category. Lord explained that the categorisation of genres for marketing purposes has thrown up a conundrum for Caribbean speculative fiction, and in a region where folklore is embedded into the culture, rigid categorisation can be both unrealistic and a limitation. Her own work has proved accessible to the mainstream, yet careful reading would uncover the multi-layered narrative that make it, as she said with a despairing sigh, “more than just a love story”.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Spiegeltent, Charlotte Sq.
This was an event that Festival Director Nick Barley cared about enough to introduce and chair himself, which is, let’s face it, quite some recommendation. Nick told us about having seen these storytellers in Nigeria, and having been amazed by the reactions of the audience to one of Mara’s stories. He challenged us to outdo that audience in clapping, jumping out of our seats, shouting, and generally making an all-out whoop-de-doo. I’ll admit I cringed, I wanted to say “Nick, we’re Scots, we show our appreciation by rapt attention at best, and not throwing chairs at worst. That is unless we’ve aready had a wee swallae, ken.” This was the middle of the day, we were mainly middle-aged, mainly middle-class, and mainly sober. But, I have to admit, we did unlace our stays a wee bit. Hard not to, under the circumstances.
The Spiegeltent is not an easy venue. It is right next to the busiest of the roads that surround Charlotte Square Gardens, it is subject to the roar of traffic and, this afternoon, to the intermittent blare of emergency service sirens. Someone taking to the stage here has to be able to dazzle under pretty difficult circumstances. Neither Maimouna Jallow nor Mara Menzies had any difficulty dominating the stage, by appearing in personae. This was where a difficulty arose for me, with the question: can the ‘larger-than-life African woman’ now be taken as a stereotype? I suppose there is a danger of that. I felt that a way to plane the rough edges off that would have been if Maimouna and Mara could have operated from among us – as though we were a company around a fireside, or at a ceilidh in the traditional sense of the word, where people visit each other’s homes for the craic – rather than from the stage. Can this be done at the Book Festival? It’s certainly something to bear in mind. I would have felt a much greater connection with them, much less as though my bum was cemented to my chair and I was obliged to be a well-behaved audience member, no matter what Nick Barley said.
This whole entertainer/audience binary made me very much aware of cultural issues too. Neither Maimouna nor Mara was untouched by them either. The Festival blurb lists them as both being Kenyan; the ‘Biography’ section of Mara’s own web site lists her only as “one of Scotland’s best loved performance storytellers,” and Maimouna, though based in Nairobi, has Wolof and Spanish heritage, and both are aware that there is an extent to which they are showcasing traditional material from a step away from themselves. In an sense, they are collectors rather in the vein of Cecil Sharp, you could say. I was also aware of ‘liberal triggers’ in the material – why shouldn’t a woman inherit a house? if sex is unavoidable, why shouldn’t a woman use it as a kind of weapon? – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in the audience.
But hey! What I really wanted to do was take my Postcolonial Studies hat off, give my cultural awareness a jubilee, forget about stereotypes, gender politics and such, and just kick back and enjoy being told stories. Was that a starter today? Well, yes. In skip-loads, actually. That should tell you how good these two women are. Both left me wanting more. If you should get the opportunity to see Maimouna’s stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s novel The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi’s Wives, then do so. Keep your eyes peeled for Mara too – as she is based in Edinburgh that shouldn’t be too difficult. I’ll not say anything more about the content of their material, but rather I’ll leave it as a very pleasant surprise for you when you get to experience it for yourselves.
I would like to thank both storytellers sincerely, and to add a special, extra thank you. They had missed their photo call back in the media area, so after the event I asked Nick Barley if I could have a mini photo-call of my own. He said yes, and both Maimouna and Mara graciously agreed too. As a result, I managed to get the exclusive shots that accompany this review. Off-the-scale privilege.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Kamal Ahmed is the Economics editor of the BBC so I knew when I turned up for this event that I was in for some highbrow chat. As the talk was billed as ‘Has capitalism hit the buffers?’ I was also hoping for some answers. As a raving socialist I was on some level hoping for a polemical attack on late stage capitalism but of course I should have known better for this was a balanced nuanced discussion which never the less did in its own way provide satisfying answers to the question.
First off Little and Ahmed talked about a bit about the background to the current situation we find ourselves in explaining how Keynsian consensus was arrived at in the aftermath of WW2 and how until the 1970’s a balance existed between a mixed economy and a strong welfare state. The difficult period of strikes and power cuts in the 1970’s led to this breaking down and its replacement by the neo-liberal ideas of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. This free market economic ideas led to Thatcher and Reagan whose attitude that the market will provide continued until the financial crash of 2008.
Ahmed pointed out that there have been other crashes since WW2 such as the Asian crash which is still effecting Japan today but acknowledged that 2008’s was a game-changer. The main difference Ahmed suggested was that the effect had been so devastating because the banks were now global. When challenged by Little on how the banks themselves had been effected Ahmed explained that there were in fact far greater controls on them than previously and that their balance sheets were drastically reduced. This meant also that they were risk averse which caused various problems. It means that they invest in fixed capital eg properties rather than other types e.g. new businesses causing people’s incomes to drop and remain low. It became apparent that Ahmed himself was not in any sense an anti-capitalist. He suggested that capitalism had been a positive force in emerging economies in South Asia allowing many citizens to rise out of poverty. He was however concerned that China’s successes demonstrated that capitalism’s previous interconnected relationship with democracy was crumbling. He felt that the technological behemoths of corporations such as Amazon and Google were also doing much to destroy notions of accountability and fair practice.
Ahmed felt that capitalism was failing in its central promise of rewarding those who work hard and ‘play the game’ He recognised that Millennials have a very different more cynical attitude to the older generations with regards to the capitalist consensus and that if Capitalism was to remain relevant it would have to change. He suggested that in the 21st century people wanted ‘a democracy you could touch’ and that he saw a return to localism combined with a kind of loose global policing of big business as a plausible way forward.
The discussion then went on to explore recent changes in attitude to the way the general public consume and relate to the media. Little challenged Ahmed about the erosion of trust in the BBC something which he met head on. Ahmed felt that it was important to retain a sense of balance but acknowledged the difficulties of this in a more polarised world. He felt that ultimately the BBC needed to be rigorous in all areas and non-partisan and that all sides should be treated with the same level of scrutiny. He suggested that this did not necessarily mean always having balance as he had to ultimately make a judgement call based on where he felt the truth lay. This he suggested was based on trusting the findings of experts and by being data led. He felt that the polarised binary way in which Brexit was reported was unhelpful and that he s aught to be direct and straight forward in his approach. He was interested in modernising news and current affairs in a way which recognised the different way people now consume news whilst also acknowledging that the disconnect the media creates between itself and people’s real lives has made it hard for them to trust.
This was a nuanced, intelligent discussion which certainly provided much for me to process and reflect upon – a far cry from the hectoring sloganeering of much of today’s media discussion.
Chaired by Australian Julianne Schultz the panel that gathered to discuss the role of the Commonwealth had three panellists, from India, Ghana and Barbados who collectively brought an awe-inspiring range of talent and experience to the table. Schultz herself is a prolific author and editor of quarterly journal, the Griffith Review. The panelists included Karen Lord, a Barbadian polymath and author of multi-award-winning Redemptive in Indigo, Best of all Possible Worlds and the Galaxy Game, Margaret Busby, the legendary writer, editor and broadcaster who became Britain’s youngest and first Black woman publisher and Salil Tripathi, Indian-born human rights journalist and author, currently based in London and Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. The very existence of the Commonwealth is, of course, contentious and a ripe subject for discussion. First mooted by Scottish aristocrat Lord Rosebury in 1884 as a means of keeping ex-colonies as allies after decolonisation, the Commonwealth was created in 1926. Potential British hopes for a post-Brexit Empire 2.0 were scrutinised, as symbolised in Meghan Markle’s elaborately embroidered wedding veil. This kicked off a broad discussion of many issues; including the appropriateness of inherited succession to the post of Head of the Commonwealth, and questions of how Commonwealth countries can best work together.
The relative importance to the speakers of the Commonwealth in the past was influenced by age, national history and the process of independence creating significant variations in experience. All the speakers agreed on the importance of understanding the history of the Commonwealth in order for us all to have a better understanding of issues of past and present immigration. Tripathi’s personal relationship had been a positive one, with fond memories of growing up in India with access to the British Council, British literature and most importantly, scholarships to study in Britain. However, the audience laughed at him likening Brexit to leaving a wife for an old flame; realising too late that life has moved on without you. Economies like India’s have certainly forged ahead in the meantime, surpassing Britain’s in 2016. Busby spoke of being born in Ghana in 1944 as British citizen, under the broader citizenship laws that were in place at the time, and the effect of being introduced to a narrow range of British literature at her British school. Lord shared the story that although she was born in an independent Barbados and studied a more relevant Caribbean syllabus, it was still a surprise to hear International Finance professors at Oxford freely admit that trade policies post-Independence were certainly not set up to benefit the ex-colonies in any way.
Lord used the example of a scene in George Lamming’s classic Barbadian novel, the Castle of my Skin where the disbelief at an elderly woman claiming to have been born a slave, parallels our current amnesia around our often fractious and violent history. She briefly touched on the history of independence for Caribbean countries and Britain’s selfish motivations for swift decolonisation. It would have been fruitful to tease out further how the method of granting of independence to Caribbean nations cemented individual national identities, interests of the local ruling classes and international capital.
There was, however, much discussion of the unfairness and the devastating psychological impact of the recent Windrush debacle that finally hit the headlines in 2018, particularly by Busby. Rightly so, as we need to continue the pressure to resolve the myriad cases of Caribbean-born, legal British citizens brought to Britain as children on a British passport who have suddenly been denied citizenship or even the right to enter the country from a trip abroad. Busby was keen to emphasise that Britain needs a fuller understanding of the Commonwealth in order to recognise the contribution by immigrants to Britain from ex-colonies, from creating, expanding and supporting the national economy to the many and varied contributions to national culture. There was general agreement that the British education system is severely narrow and limited in its focus which doesn’t provide the necessary context for understanding a demand for reparations, economically or otherwise. The issue of reparations is a touchy subject, that our political leaders make a point of dodging. From Tony Blair’s refusal of an outright apology over slavery in 2007, to David Cameron sidestepping all discussions of reparations on his ‘prison debacle’ visit to Jamaica in 2015. In the absence of a richer educational curriculum, ignorance can contribute to alienation. Tripathi cited the example of the whitewashing of the fuller historical narrative, citing the recent film Dunkirk as an example of omitting the contributions of non-white soldiers from around the world in various war efforts. Lord suggested that this kind of historical ignorance often leads to blaming others for their own misfortunes or seeming lack of progress.
One of the potential benefits of cooperating with other Commonwealth countries is the ease of communication through a mutual language, but this also comes loaded with its own problems. One of the benefits of writing in English is that literature can be more easily promoted and reach a wider global audience. Tagore’s work, for example, once it was translated into English by a passionate Yeats, went global. Even the insistence on English for entrants in the Commonwealth Writers Prize, gives a huge headstart in the race to native English speakers. Issues of language and how it affects identity and the expression of one’s authentic self have been debated among Caribbean writers for years. Lord outlined the debates over the use of Standard English or national dialects in Caribbean writing, including the perception and accessibility of dialect, particularly French patois and Amerindian languages used in Guyana.
Tripathi considered the most useful role of the Commonwealth could be in the area of human rights, citing examples of times when Pakistan and Nigeria have been asked to leave over these issues. The panel agreed on the great possibilities of South-South cooperation, particularly in sharing culture to facilitate debate. I was interested in what the panel considered the most urgent but practical issues should in the huge topic of reparations, but there wasn’t time to go beyond the immediate issue of righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal. In an era of complicated trade agreements, the stranglehold of the IMF, using the Commonwealth to strengthen South-South trade is perhaps idealistic. However, with the global growth of publishing houses, perhaps the publishing industry can tentatively lead the way.