Talking about race – Reni Eddo-Lodge and Victor Rodger: WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View

In an engrossing event at Christchurch Art Gallery, Reni Eddo-Lodge was in conversation with playwright Victor Rodger. She talked us through her thought-provoking debut book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. This collection of essays seeks to unpick and challenge white dominant ideology.

Reni Eddo-Lodge and Victor Rodger
Reni Eddo-Lodge and Victor Rodger

The idea for the book grew out of a 2014 blog post in which Reni, a young British journalist of Nigerian heritage, wrote of her “frustration that discussions of race and racism were being led by those not affected by it,” and that when she tried to talk about these issues was told that there wasn’t actually a problem or accused her of being angry. The irony of marking this line in the sand was that suddenly lots of people wanted to listen to Reni’s point of view – including a full (mostly white) art gallery auditorium.

There are a number of themes in the book. One is history, and Reni is keen for black Britons to write themselves back into history. The British connection to slavery and to Africa is deep. I studied economic and social history 1750-1875 at A-level and slavery and colonialism was barely mentioned. I find this appalling because:

  • a) hello – where was the cotton for the cotton mills coming from?
  • and b) it has taken me until the last week or two to realise this.

It is this kind of oversight that Reni is trying to point out.

Reni Eddo-Lodge
Reni Eddo-Lodge

Whiteness isn’t the default. Whiteness isn’t neutral. There are other ways of doing things; there are other points of view. Which is actually quite liberating if you think about.

Reni was assured and matter of fact, and very easy to listen to. Another topic she highlights is feminism. What is the point of feminism that is only for white women and doesn’t have a space for black women and others? Issues don’t happen in isolation, and overlap and intersect all the time.

This truly was a session to make you think about and observe how you experience the world, to make you want to explore further by reading her book, and to shift your point of view.

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Not such a strange meeting – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

Cover100 years ago last week at Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon and one of the great literary friendships was born. Wilfred was recovering from shellshock, deeply traumatised by his time on the Western Front in 1917. Siegfried, grieving and angry at the deaths of his friends and men in his unit, had protested against the continued conduct of the First World War. After intervention from Robert Graves, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than face a court martial. As the aspiring poet Wilfred was well aware, Siegfried was already a moderately famous poet. In the few weeks together they had in Scotland, Siegfried encouraged and mentored Wilfred.

Wilfred was killed on 4 November 1918, exactly a year after he left Craiglockhart and a week before the Armistice, however in the time between meeting Siegfried and his death he produced some of the most famous war poems, including Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting. Their shared influence can still be felt today – their works are still taught in school, and Siegfried’s quote “I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele” has been widely quoted in the ongoing commemorations of the Third Battle of Ypres.

CoverWe know so much about their friendship as they both wrote about it – Wilfred in excited letters to his mother and Siegfried a couple of decades later in his volume of autobiography Siegfried’s Journey. This documentation has provided excellent source material for modern authors looking to portray the two poets. They are the subject of a two-hander play Not About Heroes which covers Craiglockhart in Act One and their different paths in Act Two. Intimate and moving, this is a powerful play (but having directed it a few years ago I am quite biased).

CoverPerhaps the most well-known depiction of their friendship is in Pat Barker‘s award winning Regeneration Trilogy. However, in Barker’s interpretation of Siegfried’s time at Craiglockhart, his friendship with Wilfred is overshadowed by his connection with his doctor, W. H. R. Rivers. There’s a lot going on in the trilogy – the cultural construct of masculinity cracking under pressure, mental health, sex, pacifism – and Siegfried and Wilfred are only one strand to this. Rivers is perhaps the main character and the marvelous fictional creation that is Billy Prior dominates the last two books.

I’ve mentioned before how Billy is possibly my favourite literary character. He’s the working class kid who becomes an officer; he’s bisexual; he’s somewhere on the continuum of sanity and insanity; he’s a split personality. He’s so many things that in some ways he shouldn’t work but – to me at least – he does. Billy and Rivers tie the trilogy together.

And so a chance meeting 100 years ago is still being interpreted and played out today; the voices of those caught up in conflict still resonating.

Do you have a favourite war poem?

Listening to Reni Eddo-Lodge

This is a slightly odd blog. I don’t know a huge amount about Reni Eddo-Lodge, and because of the way her session at the upcoming WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View series at the Christchurch Arts Festival is titled, I want to go into it with as open a mind as possible and without too many preconceptions. Additionally, I’m a few places down the holds list for her book so won’t get to see it before I see her.

Reni Eddo-Lodge

However, I can tell you about why I want to listen to her. I vaguely saw the title of her book and WORD session, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, on Twitter and then came across a book review in The Guardian and the concept piqued my interest. I’ve been reading quite a lot about diversity, racism and colonialism and also getting my head around intersectionality, so when I saw that Reni was coming to Christchurch I jumped at the opportunity to listen to her. I want to leave my white privilege at the door and make the most of a chance to gain insight into someone else’s perspective.

In this day and age, listening may be one of our most valuable tools.

 

Resolution and revolutionaries: A. N. Wilson, eminent biographer

There was an understandably big crowd at The Piano last night for A. N. Wilson in conversation with Christopher Moore. Part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, we were treated to insights about the eminent novelist and biographer’s new and upcoming works, as well as his distinguished career.

As you can see, I was quite a long way back!
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Wilson – or Andrew as I think we’re allowed to call him – was inspired to write biography after reading Lytton Strachey‘s Eminent Victorians and wanting to write as well as him. While he is generally commissioned to write biographies, he chose to write about the lives of Leo Tolstoy and Walter Scott. Scott was pretty much the father of historical fiction, with his tales of the Scottish Highlands allowing people to imagine what it was like to live in the past instead of simply regurgitating facts.

One of the things that fascinated Andrew about Tolstoy was the fact that while we know him as a great novelist, in Russia he was more known for his political beliefs – including his idea of passive anarchy which went to to inspire people like Gandhi. However, after digging into Tolstoy’s domestic sphere he concludes that:

he would not like to be Mrs Tolstoy.

Cover of ResolutionAndrew’s latest novel is Resolution, about the German botanist Georg Forster who travelled with Captain Cook on his second voyage and later became a revolutionary in France. Interestingly, in Communist East Germany Forster was seen as a champion of class struggle and became a national hero. It’s great to hear about different and interesting people and I’m looking forward to reading this book.

An obvious favourite of Andrew’s is Queen Victoria who he describes as “taking being an embarrassing mother to new heights”. However, he is now researching Prince Albert, who is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, Andrew describes him as being

deeply strange and complicated.

He also believes that although Victoria was madly in love with Albert, he never fell in love with her and controlled her to a great degree. Look out for this biography in 2019, as its going to be fascinating!

Andrew obviously has a passion for the people he writes about and it was fabulous to have the opportunity to listen to his great storytelling here in Christchurch – which, he reminded us, is very much a Victorian city.

A N Wilson, photo by Andrew London

 

Buses, Byzantium and fangirling Stella Duffy

image_proxyMany years ago I used to bus up and down the Walworth Road and round the Elephant and Castle, south of the Thames in London, either on the 68 or the 468 (if memory serves me right Janet Frame used to take one of those buses, or one very similar).

While I’d spend quite a lot of that time reading I also used to enjoy looking out of the window at the variety of people and places. I always enjoyed the Mixed Blessings Bakery, Rimworld the hat shop, and the halal noodle bar. On a more serious note, there was also a memorial to victims of the Blitz on the side of the Cuming Museum. As with any city it was a true palimpsest, with many layers of history side by side and intermingled.

Imagine my nostalgia when the pages of a book took me on that same journey, but decades earlier. A book which has a dedication which talks of a taniwha in the Thames. I just loved Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath, so rich and evocative of the melting pot of the city in 1912.

This sense of place and history and connections is one of many reasons I am so excited that Stella is coming to the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season on 15th May to talk about her latest books, including London Lies Beneath, and her task of finishing Ngaio Marsh‘s unfinished Money in the Morgue.

Stella Duffy, photo by
Stella Duffy, photo by Gino Spiro

Stella writes and campaigns in many areas, such as the arts, breast cancer, women’s and LGBT issues, and has worked in the theatre and written a number of novels and short stories. More recently she has become a co-director of Fun Palaces – a weekend each year where a variety of venues and locations enable arts and science for all, with a belief that community belongs at the core of all culture. They are a brilliant idea and Central Library Peterborough has had the opportunity to host a Fun Palace for the last couple of years.

I have also only just realised that Stella has written fiction about the Empress Theodora – I do love a bit of Byzantium!

I can’t wait for 15th May and hope to see you there.

The magic word ‘Anzac’

On 25 April we will stop to remember those who served in the conflicts New Zealand has participated in, from the world wars to Iraq and Afghanistan, via Korea, Vietnam and others, and not forgetting New Zealand’s 19th century wars and the Boer War.

“Indian Troops at Gas Mask Drill.,” by Unknown. The Imperial War Museum via First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 13, 2017, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/3616.
“Indian Troops at Gas Mask Drill.,” by Unknown. The Imperial War Museum via First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 13, 2017, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/3616.

There is much to remember, and this year the focus will be on the 100th anniversaries of the Battle of Messines in June and Passchendaele in October, in particular 12 October which saw more than 800 New Zealanders killed in a single day.

As the First World War disappears from living memory, we are fortunate to have access to historic newspapers either on microfilm at Central Library Manchester or at Papers Past. They can show us how Anzac Day has been commemorated and represented over the past century. An editorial from The Press on 25 April 1917 explains that the “magic word ‘Anzac’… tells us how Australians and New Zealanders fought and died shoulder to shoulder in the cause of freedom” and that “time has not yet mellowed the memory of that day.”

CoverThe editorial also makes a passing reference to some of the Indian troops who served during the Gallipoli campaign. Around 16,000 individuals from the Indian Army served during the campaign and their neglected story is well told in Die in battle, do not despair: the Indians on Gallipoli, 1915 by Peter Stanley.

Ever growing access to different sources and new publications means that we can uncover and share more stories than ever about the First World War and other conflicts New Zealand has been involved in.

Lord Jellicoe inspects the First Canterbury Guard of Honour, ANZAC Day, foundation stone ceremony, Bridge of Remembrance [25 Apr. 1923] CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0023
Lord Jellicoe inspects the First Canterbury Guard of Honour, ANZAC Day, foundation stone ceremony, Bridge of Remembrance [25 Apr. 1923] CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0023

Anzac resources

This article was published in issue 3 of our quarterly magazine, uncover – huraina. Read it online.

We need to talk about America…

Not that we haven’t been doing just that for the last few months, but there’s so much to say. America fascinates and repulses me. I couldn’t live there – not just because I would eat all the food – but it is a fascinating place to observe, and we are fortunate to generally be able to enjoy its cultural output, both high and lowbrow. So naturally I was intrigued when I spied Claudia Roth Pierpont’s American Rhapsody in a bookshop in Auckland. I immediately went to the nearest library, hopped on the wifi and requested a copy (btw – aren’t libraries great?).

Cover of American rhapsodyIt’s a funny book, endeavouring to “present the the kaleidoscopic story of the creation of a culture.” Lofty intentions indeed! However, it is more of a collection of biographical and critical essays about a range of major players in American culture. The first two-thirds of the essays – which include Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hepburn and Gershwin are perfectly okay, but it’s the final third where, for me, the book truly comes alive. Orson Welles‘ and Laurence Olivier‘s (not from the US but that’s not the point) approaches to acting and Shakespeare are compared and contrasted. What is naturalism, how – and should – America tackle Shakespeare? These themes of naturalism and an American theatrical tradition are continued in an essay on Marlon Brando.

Cover of James Baldwin: Early novels and storiesWe are reminded that Brando was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and the last two essays cover novelist James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone who – to my shame – I didn’t know much about at all. Reading about these two African-Americans and learning more about the the nuances and iterations of the wider Civil Rights movement is inspiring me – to read their words and listen to their music and make an effort to further understand America’s painful history.

So, I’ve come away from this book thinking about acting and how we express our country through our cultural creations, and also with some new inspirational figures to look to. We need them.

Tell me a story

I recently had the opportunity to attend a storytelling workshop by Te Reo Wainene o Tua. It was a great event and attendees got to think about Māori storytelling, stories in general and who has the right to tell stories.

Stories are essential – without them nothing really has any meaning. But stories and meaning and knowledge are being lost all the time.

We were honoured to have Charles Te Ahukaramū Royal as one of our presenters. He spoke about how the exact meaning of some words to describe Māori types of story has become unclear, and how he is trying to reconstruct this meaning by analysing stories.

Te Reo Wainene o Tua booklet
Te Reo Wainene O Tua: Kei Te Waipounamu, 7-10 Mahura 2016 booklet

In a similar vein I heard Paul Tapsell talk at National Digital Forum in 2013 about using digital channels to connect Māori in urban areas back to communities and places they are associated with.

This shift from urban to rural made me think about how in Britain, where I am from, there was a huge move in population to growing cities in the Industrial Revolution. What was lost in terms of communities and shared heritage that was never recovered? What have I lost?

A book that I read a couple of years ago that has really stayed with me is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. It really isn’t an easy read. It tells the story of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest (it’s never the Norman Colonisation, is it?), 950 years ago this month. 1066 is a huge watershed in British history and sometimes what came before gets a little lost. The north of England resisted and were savagely put down in the ‘harrowing of the north‘, and sometimes I wonder if the region has ever truly recovered. There really is a reason the north remembers.

The Wake reminds us of the human impact of the conquest and provides a glimpse of an older world going back into pagan times.

So, stories: they connect us to people, places and culture – both our own and ones we are learning about, they get lost, they get recovered, they can be very ancient, they lead us to different places, they make us think, they make us.

More about storytelling

Beautiful but doomed: Ted Dawe’s Devon Santos

Cover of Thunder RoadTed Dawe is coming to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival this month, so I thought I’d better get up to date with his latest book Into the World, the final entry in his Devon Santos trilogy (although chronologically it is the middle instalment).

Into the World joins together 2003’s Thunder Road, a fast-paced examination of boy racer culture and 2012’s award-winning Into the River, set against Māori mythology and a prestigious boarding school.

All three are wonderfully written and completely engrossing, telling the story of Te Arepa ‘Devon’ Santos. Charming, talented and impulsive Devon may just be one of my favourite ever literary characters (along with Pat Barker‘s Billy Prior). In some ways cursed by his own intelligence, he is set up to fail by society. Cover of Into the RiverHis story shows how many hoops perceived outsiders are supposed to jump through in order to gain acceptance. No wonder there are people who want to live outside the system or to beat it.

We are fortunate in New Zealand to have a young adult writer like Ted Dawe who isn’t afraid to confront important issues like identity, sexuality, belonging and the nature of society. His stories feel as if they are ripped directly from the headlines.

Ted Dawe appears at the following WORD Christchurch sessions:
No Sex Please, We’re Teenagers, Fri 26 Aug, 5.15pm
Teens in Peril, Sat 27 Aug, 11am

Remembering a disastrous day – The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme lasted from July to November 1916. The New Zealand Division became involved on 15 September at Flers-Courcelette, which was their first major action on the Western Front.

New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23130341
New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23130341

While the casualty figures for the whole battle are horrendous for all nations involved, those for the opening day of the battle for the British Army and Newfoundland forces are truly staggering – over 57,000 wounded and more than 19,000 killed. It was truly a disastrous day and only the Fall of Singapore in 1942 saw more casualties for the British Army – although the majority of those were prisoners of war.

What makes 1 July even more devastating is that so many British and Newfoundland soldiers were going into action for the first time, many in what were known as Pals Battalions where men from local communities joined up together. Not surprisingly, this had disastrous consequences for these communities which were often in working class, industrial areas.

There are a couple of excellent and contrasting histories of this day. Martin Middlebrook’s First Day on the Somme is a classic military history which looks in great depth at the formation of the British units on the Somme and tells the story of the battle through the of a number of soldiers. Andrew Macdonald’s recent First Day of the Somme explores in great detail how the battle plan evolved and analyses the tactics of the army formations involved to show how they failed or partially succeeded.

Cover Cover

Over the next few days and months I will be thinking of those who fought on 1 July and throughout the rest of the battle, in particular the 7th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment who went into action near Fricourt late on 2 July.

Do you have any connection to the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916?

Our newspaper and magazine archives are a great way to explore historic events as they unfold. Log in with your library card number and password / PIN.