From David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Mangrove

The Mangrove Nine

16th November 

Yesterday evening’s brilliant BBC One screening of Mangrove, the first in a series of five films in the Small Axe series directed by Steve McQueen, was difficult to watch.  The historically accurate film covers the two years from 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, when Frank Critchlow established his Mangrove Trinidadian restaurant in Notting Hill, which rapidly became a much needed hub for the British-Caribbean community, to the 1970 Old Bailey trial of nine men and women of West Indian extraction who had been arrested following a protest march on the local police station.   The protest was the eventual outcome of eighteen months of racist harassment by the police who had conducted twelve violent and destructive raids on the Mangrove over that period under the pretence that, being run by black people, it was bound to harbour drug-dealers and prostitutes.  The trial lasted for 55 tense days during which the defendants were liable, if found guilty, to ten-year prison sentences for incitement to riot.   The acting across-the-board is mesmerising, the story-telling superbly nuanced, and the film has deservedly earned five star ratings from the critics.

It was difficult to watch for two reasons.  The first was that it was such a visceral reminder of so much that went on in South Africa during the apartheid years.  The film captures the vicious racial stereotyping, the casual racist brutality of the police,  vividly and chillingly.  And it manages to do so without caricature or overstatement.    PC Frank Pulley, superbly acted, still a constable after 15 years in the police force, epitomises the racist bully who takes his own inadequacies out on those he assumes to be powerless to resist.   The film reveals the extent to which those in the dock are in every respect – morally, intellectually, and in terms simply of their common humanity – vastly superior to their corrupt and mendacious police accusers and, for that matter, to the inhumane court orderlies, the supercilious prosecutor and the establishment judge.  The film brought home to me, once again, just how naïve some of us in South Africa were to imagine during the 1970s and 1980s that Britain could be looked to for a model of decency and justice where the police and courts were concerned.  Give PC Pulley and his cronies a crash course in Afrikaans and they would have been entirely at home in the Suid Afrikaanse Polisie of the time.

The other reason it was difficult to watch was much more immediate and equally, if not more, visceral.  It was, quite simply, that there is still at least one arm of the British State, namely the Home Office, that blithely continues to operate with the same casual and dishonest brutality today.  The only way I can account for its appalling behaviour is by assuming that it must still be informed by a similar dehumanising racism.  We learnt from a report from Lizzie Dearden[1] in today’s The Independent that the latest device for stopping asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats in the Priti Patel box of tricks is to prosecute and imprison as a people smuggler any asylum seeker who has been coerced into steering one of the boats. Having been criminalised for trying to make sure that their fellow asylum seekers don’t drown, these asylum seekers then become liable for immediate deportation on their release from their up to 30 months imprisonment. A report in yesterday’s Observer revealed that many asylum seekers arriving by boat are being deported back to France before their asylum claims have been properly considered.  As was no doubt the case with the Mangrove Nine, who faced ridiculously exaggerated charges, the Crown Prosecution Service are cravenly acceding to, in this instance it would seem, the Home Secretary’s vicious whims.  

A second article in today’s The Independent, this time from May Bulman[2], draws our attention to a twenty-fold increase in the number of self-harm incidents in one of the detention centres holding asylum seekers who have arrived in small boats.   They are only taking to small boats in their desperation, it bears repeating, because safer routes to seek asylum, and in many instances join family members, in UK have been deliberately closed to them.   After the trauma and fear that drove them from their homes, after the hazards, hardship and hostility they have faced on their long journeys overland to reach the English Channel, after having had to pay people smugglers for the privilege of risking their lives to get here, it is hardly surprising that when they find themselves imprisoned on their arrival and threatened with immediate deportation before their claims to asylum have even been listened to they should self-harm in their utter desperation.   And this is the country that they looked to for sanctuary and justice.

We are being told that the departure of Cummings and Cain from Downing Street will give Boris Johnson a chance to ‘reset’ the direction of his government.   Now that he has crossed the threshold of the Promised Land of Brexit ‘sovereignty’, with or without a deal, one can only hope that he will demonstrate the statesmanship to look beyond the Brexit credentials of his cabinet ministers.    Unless he thinks that the majority of the British people are so brutally xenophobic that they are happy to go along with the  appalling way Patel wants asylum seekers treated, which I can’t bring myself to believe, he must, surely, taker a closer look at the role of Home Secretary.   Patel seemed to win some public sympathy via her account of the racism directed towards her when she was at school.  But it is common cause that the abused all too often end up as abusers, the bullied all too often become bullies themselves.   The outcome of the long-standing enquiry into Patel’s alleged bullying of her officials in the various government departments unfortunate enough to fall under her spell has been kept under wraps, no doubt for very good reason.   Now that Boris is having to self-isolate in the austere confines of his Downing Street flat he can, perhaps, find time to watch Mangrove.  As he does so, with a possible cabinet reshuffle in the back of his mind, he should perhaps ask himself whether it is possible that any of his current cabinet ministers have the instincts and mental attitudes of a grossly over-promoted 2020 version of PC Frank Pulley, and, if so, whether he wants them to continue to discredit any claims that the United Kingdom is a humane and civilised country.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/channel-crossings-migrant-boats-jailed-dinghies-smugglers-cps-b1722937.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/self-harm-detention-brook-house-asylum-seekers-b1668406.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hot-air balloon?

Into the sunset?

November 15th.

The UK is currently facing two existential crises simultaneously, either of which would, on its own, constitute the severest test of a UK government since World War II.   On the one hand, we have a pandemic that has so far, even by the official underestimate, cost over 51,000 lives, is still getting worse, and is once again threatening to overwhelm our hospitals.  Our Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, is predicting that the coming winter will be the NHS’s worst in decades.  The UK was always going to be affected by Covid-19 but the pandemic has been far worse in the UK, and has killed tens of thousands more people than it need have, as a result of our government’s embarrassing incompetence and, in particular, its desperately poor communication. On the other hand, as if the damage done to the economy by the pandemic were not bad enough, we have the economic catastrophe of an ideologically-driven Brexit to contend with in six weeks time.  This last will almost certainly result in a relatively short time in the break-up of our supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom.    In the meantime, as a ‘no-deal’ Brexit looms, the Prime Minister’s always very limited attention span is entirely taken up with the internecine ferret-fight in the Downing street sack that I wrote about in my last entry.

The first two ferrets to be evicted from the sack, or alternatively given it, have been Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s Director of Communications, and the infamous Dominic Cummings.  Lee Cain’s career started with his appointment as a tabloid journalist working for The Sun, which provides a very good early indication of his moral compass, or lack thereof, although he may well have learned the art of telling convincing lies earlier.  His distinction in the field has been plummily expressed by no lesser personage than the honourable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declared on his departure that Cain had been ‘a fantastic public servant … somebody instrumental in ensuring the Vote Leave campaign was successful and somebody who has made a huge contribution to this government’.  Enough said.  One has to assume that, as Johnson’s Director of Communications, Cain was at least partly responsible for the government’s shift from the clarity of its initial Covid slogan, ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’, to the much-ridiculed opacity of the May revision: ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save lives.’  It is arguable that the ineptness of that slogan, and Cain’s soul-mate Dominic Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, were the two most significant factors in undermining the credibility of government communications about the pandemic.  Cain’s place in Downing St. is due to be taken by one James Slack, who is obviously perfectly named to take tighter control of the government’s communication strategy.

The ferret fight was over Lee Cain’s prospective promotion to being Boris Johnson’s chief of staff following the appointment of Allegra Stratton as the government’s political press secretary. The latter would appear to have a career death-wish as she has apparently agreed to front Downing Street’s proposed imitation of the White House daily press briefings.  That was obviously going to cut across Cain’s direction of communications, so another job needed to be found for him.  The whole point of what goes on behind the scenes in Downing Street is that it goes on in the dark as far as the public is concerned.  It, like Michael Howard, has ‘something of the night about it’, and it is this Achilles heel, alongside our lack of a written constitution, that point to the weakness in our democracy that I referred to in my last entry.  It is ‘special advisers’ who, no matter how comprehensively they fit into Dominic Cummings’ ‘misfits and wierdos’ category, currently determine the direction of government, not the cabinet, and certainly not parliament. 

According to Andrew Woodcock’s report in The Independent, the ferrets ranged against Cummings and Cain (and who knows how many of their dozen or so fellow travellers from the Vote Leave campaign who had joined them behind the scenes in Downing St.) were, we are told, Allegra Stratton, Munira Mirza, who is currently Johnson’s ‘policy chief’, and, no doubt crucially, Carrie Symonds. Symonds is Boris Johnson’s fiancée, mother of his most recent child, which makes her officially the latest in the long line of women with whom Johnson has shared his bed, not that history suggests she will be enjoying an exclusive privilege in that respect.   So who gets to hold some of the most influential political appointments in what we are pleased to call our ‘democracy’ can be largely determined, not by formal processes of advertisement, application and assessment,  by who our Prime Minister happens to have as his formally acknowledged bed partner at any given time. 

From time to time on still days when I’m working on my allotment I hear a sudden belching sound and look up to see a hot air balloon drifting gently overhead.  The one I saw most recently seems in retrospect to be pertinent.  Hot air balloons strike me as having a lot in common with our Prime Minister.  They are highly visible – all show  – but have very little substance; they are kept afloat by hot air, fuelled by toxic gases, and extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of circumstance, being blown, hapless and uncontrollable, in unwanted directions before any adverse wind that arises.  Nobody down on the ground, mere earthlings, can have any idea who the hell, if anybody at all, is steering them.   The balloons that fly over my allotment are often like the one illustrated, floating off towards the sunset  – one hopes not the sunset of our democracy.  The faintly discernible ‘Virgin’ is obviously very much less than accurate in Johnson’s case, but then he clearly relished driving around in a bus with an obvious lie about the NHS blazoned across its sides in the run-up to the referendum, so it doesn’t seem too inappropriate.  Anyone who takes the trouble to type ‘Hot-air clown balloons’ into the Google Images search facility will see that I would have been spoiled for choice had I wanted to choose one of those as an illustration for the analogy, but none of the clowns on view came close to capturing the uniquely Johnsonian combination of deranged hair and shifty eyes.