From David Maughan Brown in York: At the end of the line?

The end of the line.

April 5th

Last week saw country-wide protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through the Committee Stage in Parliament that I wrote about on 19th March.   That’s the one that envisages a ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest, which has been described by lawyers as ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’   The Bill hasn’t been passed yet, but even so it would appear to have given the Metropolitan Police the confidence to feel that they now have free rein where protests are concerned.  On Saturday night two legal observers from Black Protest Legal Support, who were observing a protest in London, were detained by the police who were, it is reported, perfectly happy to acknowledge their status as observers: ‘Both people arrested were acting as legal observers at the protest.’*

All through the last thirty-five years of apartheid in South Africa, starting in 1956, the Black Sash – described by Nelson Mandela on his eventual release from prison as ‘the conscience of white South Africa’– held protest stands and marches to protest against the vicious cruelties of apartheid.   Protest stands were held on Saturday mornings in Pietermaritzburg through the 1970s and 1980s during which the members of the Sash, wearing their black sashes to symbolise the death of the constitution, would stand on the pavement of the main street holding their placards, having to stand well apart from each other to avoid infringing one or another of apartheid’s draconian anti-protest laws, most notably the Riotous Assemblies Act.   Isolated as they were, the women were easy targets for Security Branch intimidation as well as for abuse from apartheid-supporting white passers-by, so two or three men, of which I was sometimes one, were always asked to monitor the protests.   The police knew who we were, and knew we were monitoring their behaviour at the protests, but no one was ever arrested merely for observing one of the protests.

A Black Sash stand before the Riotous Assemblies Act came into force

Saturday’s arrests of two observers followed the arrests of four others from the same organisation on March 16thwhich had already prompted Liberty to bring legal action against the Metropolitan Police.  Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty responded to Saturday’s arrests by saying: ‘Liberty is already taking legal action against the Met for previous unlawful arrests of legal observers. Continuing to arrest independent monitors is a scandalous attack on the right to protest, and demonstrates exactly why people are taking to the streets against the government’s plans to give the police even more powers.’  

The same week saw our Home Office issuing a press release in which our honourable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is quoted, according to a Microsoft News report, as stating that modern slavery safeguards are being ‘rampantly abused’.  The press release, we are told, claims that there have been ‘major increases’ in ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers […] taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards’ in order to prevent their removal and enable them to stay in the UK.**  No evidence of these ‘major increases’, let alone any evidence of an increase in failed asylum applications, is given.  A group of barristers is reported to have submitted a complaint to the Home Office accusing it of misleading the public on immigration issues in the UK in breach of the civil service code by, among other things, equating ‘child rapists’ with ‘failed asylum seekers’, and in the process of contravening core values in the civil service code: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.  No surprise there where Patel is concerned. 

The coordinator of the barristers’ complaint, Rudolph Spurling, said Patel’s gratuitous attacks against the asylum system were particularly concerning in view of the new immigration plan she launched a few days later.  He added: ‘Lumping in failed asylum seekers with “child rapists” and “people who pose a threat to our national security and serious criminals” was an egregious attempt to demonise people who’ve not been shown to pose any danger to the public. Furthermore, there was no attempt to justify the rhetoric with relevant statistics.’  One of the more striking features of the new immigration plan is its prioritising of the way in which asylum seekers arrive in the UK over the merit or otherwise of their claims for asylum.

Last week also saw a report in The Independent revealing that the Home Office is intending to carry on until September keeping to the same high-density concentration of asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent that resulted in almost 200 people being infected with Covid-19 in January.***  This is in spite of a report by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group on 20 January that stated that there were ‘too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection’, and in spite of, to quote May Bulman’s report, ‘an assessment of the site by the government’s immigration watchdog last month [which] found that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier had not complied with official health and safety guidance and that a large-scale outbreak had been “virtually inevitable.”’  A representative of the Kent Refugee Action Network is quoted as saying that it is ‘horrific’ that vulnerable asylum seekers are being ‘packed into entirely inappropriate communal living situations against the advice of PHE [Public Health England].’  Given their vulnerability, it is almost certain that some of the asylum-seekers will have died as a result of contracting Covid at the Barracks.  I haven’t been able to establish how many, but it is all too painfully obvious that the Home Office wouldn’t care how many, and assumes that the rest of us won’t care either.

Outlaw the democratic right to protest; arrest those who are charged with monitoring police behaviour; demonise and ‘other’ particular groups in society who are too weak and vulnerable to resist; create a climate in which the general population doesn’t care what happens to those who are being demonised.  That is the line at the end of which, if people allow it to be built, the concentration camps lie in wait.**


** https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/home-office-presenting-opinion-as-fact-on-immigration-issues-lawyers-warn/ar-BB1f5ObO

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/napier-barracks-asylum-seekers-home-office-covid-b1824899.html


* https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/police-bill-protest-arrest-liberty-b1826590.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of horses and men

Cyprina

March 3rd

I surprised myself with the visceral repugnance with which I responded to the news that the prominent Irish trainer, Gordon Elliott, had posed for a photograph sitting with an imbecilic grin astride the very dead body of one of the racehorses he had been hired to train.   The photograph has been severely and sensitively cropped to cut the body of the horse out of the version published by the mainstream media, but the narrative is shocking enough without need for the full visuals.

I have always felt a particular affinity with horses.  The closest I get to an acceptance of the esoteric insights of astrology is via its tendency to suggest that an affinity with horses is often a characteristic of people born under Sagittarius.  Centaurs don’t have much option when it comes to that affinity.  The highlight of my years in, or in this case out of, junior school were the two months we spent every three years at an uncle’s trading station on the Berea Plateau, in what was then Basutoland, when my father was required as a colonial servant to remove us from boarding school and take us out of what was then Tanganyika to go on ‘long leave’.   Those idyllic months were mainly spent with and on Basuto ponies.   

At the other end of the career spectrum, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal in the very turbulent and stressful ‘transformation’ years after the unbanning of the ANC in the 1990s, being able to spend two hours on Sunday mornings riding the Cyprina of the illustration above was the best possible therapy I could have wished for.   My friend Julia Braine lives with her partner, Ros, half a dozen dogs, innumerable cats, a flock of chickens and half a dozen horses on a smallholding in Winterskloof on the hills above Pietermarizburg.  Cyprina was a superb Lipizzaner mare whose liveliness belied her 25 years.  Her owner had, wholly unaccountably, more or less abandoned her to be stabled by Julia, she needed regular exercise and I could tell myself that I was performing a public service by assisting in that regard.  The smallholding gave immediate access to hundreds of hectares of pine and blue-gum plantations above Cedara where we could roam at will.  Cyprina was always uncannily sensitive and responsive to my mood and, while Julia who was then Head of the University Student Counselling Centre is a brilliant clinical psychologist, it was Cyprina who was the therapist-in-chief.  The painting is a treasured parting present from Julia and Ros when we left South Africa. 

The Gordon Elliott photograph and story have been greeted with public outrage and fury, mainly, it seems, by those connected in one way or another with the racing industry who are clearly, and with considerable justification, concerned that it brings the industry into disrepute.  The situation wasn’t helped by another report and photograph emerging immediately afterwards about and of an equally insensitive jockey having done exactly the same thing. Gordon Elliott has been banned pending a formal inquiry; I expect the same to happen to the jockey.

With hindsight, I now find myself wondering quite why I responded to the story with such visceral distress.   It was no more rational than is the idea that my affinity with horses has to do my having been born under the sign of Sagittarius.   The horse was dead; it didn’t mind somebody sitting on it.   Any anger would have been better directed at the fact that it could have been ‘trained’ to the point of dropping dead, which suggests that its state of health was not being properly monitored.  I have no vested interest whatever in the racing industry, and the question probably needs to be asked as to what proportion of the outrage and anger has been manufactured for fear of negative repercussions for the industry rather than out of genuine compassion and respect for the nameless horse.

Perhaps I should be more worried about my immediate response to yesterday’s BBC news coverage of babies starving to death in Yemen in the context of our contemptible government’s decision to cut our aid budget to Yemen by more than fifty percent.  The UK is still selling arms to Saudi Arabia whose proxy war in the Yemen has resulted in famine conditions for tens of thousands of impoverished people.  In direct contravention of a Tory manifesto commitment, £4 billion has been cut from our Foreign Aid budget, to the anger even of many Tories on the back-benches, as a contribution towards the hole in our finances caused by, among other things, the many more billions of pounds corruptly handed out to Tory chums during the pandemic without need for a formal tendering process or parliamentary approval.  I responded with anger and indignation to the coverage of the starving babies, but not with the same visceral distress. It is too easy to become inured to coverage of children starving to death in our grossly unequal world, and to feel a distanced anger rather than an emotional shock.   A stupid man sitting on a dead horse shouldn’t shock one’s sensibility more immediately than the many atrocities with far wider ramifications going on in the world around us.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reviving Music

July 18th

Wedding anniversaries tend, in my experience, to evoke memories and lend themselves to reflection and reminiscence even more than birthdays do.  Yesterday was one such, and after a socially distanced glass of champagne in my son’s garden in York, with families in Cape Town and Sheffield joining us electronically, we pushed the boat out via our first take-away meal since the start of lockdown.  Partisan, one of the best restaurants in York – and it is an exceptionally competitive field – started producing two-course take-away meals under lockdown that proved so popular that they have continued to do so for those of us neither brave nor carefree enough to regard lockdown as having ended.  They assure prospective customers that they offer ‘generous portions’, which is a serious understatement – each of the individual servings of potatoes, for example, featured eight potatoes (generous even for Yorkshire) – so we have another excellent dinner to look forward to tonight.

By way of a floorshow while we ate our dinner we accessed Christopher Duigan’s streamed Music Revival concert, which yesterday consisted mainly of his own, exceptionally evocative, short compositions.   Christopher is an improbably brilliant pianist who lives with his partner in Pietermaritzburg.   ‘Improbably’ only to the extent that one would expect to find a pianist of his quality living in Barcelona or London, where he does play from time to time, or, if he was going to remain in South Africa, in the cultural centres of Cape Town or Johannesburg/Pretoria, where in normal times he also goes to play quite frequently.  Christopher has a phenomenal repertoire of classical pieces, which enables him to put together two hour-long concerts every week that he streams via You Tube on Thursday and Saturday evenings, playing much of the time from memory.  It was just our good luck that the concert scheduled for Thursday had been put off until yesterday as a result of a threatened power outage, one of the very many that South Africans have to contend with these days.  The concert evoked layer upon layer of nostalgia, particularly when he was kind enough to dedicate the beautiful last piece he played, titled ‘Himeville’, to us for our anniversary.

I had the pleasure of being peripherally involved as a trustee when Christopher set Music Revival up in Pietermaritzburg in 1997.  We attended many of his concerts at his home, from where he streams his evening concerts now, and at a venue a few miles away in a house in Hilton designed around a room big enough to accommodate 40-50 strong audiences.   One of the spin-offs from those concerts was the Wedgewood brand of nougat, now sold all over South Africa, that Jilly Walters, the hostess, originally made as an interval snack.  We knew most of those in the audience at the concerts, as one would after living in the same relatively small city for much the better part of thirty years.  Even after almost twenty years in York, the social isolation that the pandemic has necessitated has served only to underline the comparative isolation one is inviting if one opts to change continents after one’s children, who are the catalyst for so many of one’s social relationships, have left home.

The nostalgia evoked by watching Christopher playing ‘Himeville’ against a backdrop of orchids in his familiar home was not just for the rolling green hills of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, described so lyrically in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and the foothills of the Drakensberg where the little town of Himeville is to be found, but also for the friendships and sense of community and common purpose that lasted beyond the ending of apartheid and into the ‘transformation’ years that followed.   The struggle against apartheid generated a sense of common purpose and a strong bond between those who opposed that vicious and ultimately self-defeating system.  I think many of us miss that sense of common purpose. I certainly do.   So tuning in to Christopher’s concerts on Wednesdays or Thursdays (depending on the schedule of power-outages) and Saturdays is more than just a way to enjoy brilliant piano playing, and Christopher’s informal and informative commentary, it is also a way of regaining, at least in part, a sense of being part of a community with a shared history.