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White people, its time to start owning your history

A bit of a long read but as we approach Black History Month in the UK and start talking about the contributions black people have made to British society I wanted to politely suggest that the majority of white people need to start owning their history and that black history month is not the time to talk about slavery or colonialism.

It seems to be consistently inconvenient to remember the UK’s industrial wealth was built on the backs of the black and brown people who inhabited the British colonies. The wealth that came from this dark history funded the growth of British cities and communities as well as the development of industries that have since boomed into multinationals that dominate the global marketplace. 

The people and countries who toiled the hardest for the benefit of the British industrialists have never seen a shred of the unimaginable wealth that has transformed communities and families across the UK. As a result of slavery and post slavery forced labour many white people with humble beginnings benefited from the trickle-down economics and philanthropy that would change the life chances of their future families forever.

Industrialists poured wealth into education for their children and then because the owners of the cotton mills and sugar plants had so much new money they funded schools in their towns, they funded universities, they started charitable organisations for the poor (white people), they brought houses, became property developers, developed new workers housing, built themselves huge mansions of which many are now in the hands of the National Trust. It’s not surprising that at home Industrialists were celebrated, that they became the landed gentry and members of Parliament who could, in their new positions of power, determine the life chances of others while their wives became campaigners fighting for (white) women to have equal rights.  

The opportunity to travel and streamline the processes in the Colonies for the benefit of a company’s bottom line enabled Industrialists to take treasures from these faraway lands.  These treasures are now worth a fortune and changing the lives of the people who inherited them; all of whom promise when they hear the valuation on the Antiques Roadshow ‘to keep it in the family’.

These Industrialists didn’t pay tax in the British colonies and they certainly didn’t invest into the lands of the people where the raw materials were coming from. No money for schools, hospitals or housing. It’s no surprise then that the generations that came after slavery continued to be oppressed, abused and tortured. These people did not thrive, they received no compensation, they were forced to work in slave like conditions for meagre wages. They had no legacy of wealth, just more pain, poverty and continued racism.

The biggest manufacturing plants on Jamaica are still owned by British companies and the tourism industry is mostly owned by Spanish companies; neither industry reinvest their profits into Jamaica. Even now the commonwealth countries who gained independence from Britain still pay the British government a penny in every pound they make as a tax in exchange for freedom. These taxes are supposed to provide access to funds, including from Europe and security particularly during and after hurricanes but we’ve seen how that plays out.

A good example of an Industrialist who grew a multinational organisation off the back of the colonies is Lord Lever, the ‘hulme’ came later. While Lord Lever built the globally celebrated Port Sunlight village to provide his workforce with good housing and campaigned for better welfare for all he supported the expansion of the British colonies. After being unable to access forced labour in the British West African colonies he brought into the forced labour of the Belgian Congo instead. His huge investment supported a period of history that was responsible for more deaths than the Nazi holocaust. This relationship with the Congo did not end until the country secured its independence in 1960.  Today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the poorest counties in the world with 80% of it’s population living on less than $1.50 a day. In contrast, Lever Brothers became Unilever and is one of the richest conglomerates in the world.

To me this is more Britain’s history than it is African but you won’t often read about the dark side of Lord Lever because he was a billionaire Industrialist who is celebrated as a liberal, who gifted Lancaster House (an actual palace) to the British public, invested in schools, universities and grew one of the most successful businesses in the world. He is also responsible for the death of millions of Africans and for stripping the Congo of its natural resources and leaving nothing in return.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable to think about but white people, by not taking ownership of what your ancestors did during your colonial past, you are standing still and prolonging the healing that needs to take place. My ancestors had no power to dismantle the structural racism they endured during slavery and post slavery colonialism. These periods of history and their legacy belong to you and a few kind words during black history month is not owning your history or doing anything to re-balance the outcomes of it. If you think your pain is too huge to bear imagine for a moment the life of the people your people abused. If you think I should just get over it, my response is that is easy to say while standing on the privilege colonialism afforded you. Your people were poor you say, indeed they may have been but they were poor within a booming economy that eventually funded a welfare system, free schooling, healthcare and a first rate travel network. Being poor in Britain post the Industrial age was due to political arrangements not because of structural racism. By comparison even desperately poor white people had better life chances than their counterparts in the Commonwealth and that is British history that should be taught all year round not just mentioned along with some kindly words of recompense during the month of October.

“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”

Sir Terry Pratchett

The reliable comfort of no surprises

I used to think people who went back to the same place on holiday year after year were really, really boring – now I have become someone who goes back to the same place on repeat, I’ve had to ask myself a couple of questions; what make a holiday destination a keeper and am I boring?

We have been going to Gennadi, a village in the south of Rhodes, Greece for ten years! Ten whole years of going back to the same place and loving it a little bit more every time we go. It’s an actual village where people live, there is a school, a police station a Post Office and all the shops a village needs with bonus points for the very slow ten-minute stroll to the sea and all the gorgeous tavernas that sit on its shore.  There are hotels of course, huge ones owned I think by Scandinavian corporates, tiny ones owned by local Greek families and a glut of Airbnb rentals.

Somehow all the different visitors and the local community manage to rub along together and the village doesn’t change. Its slow, laid back, lots of things don’t make sense and I think this is why I love it. It’s not exciting, its predictable and reliable.  The moment we land on Rhodes we know exactly what to expect and we slow down immediately, we don’t think, we don’t work, we eat our weight in watermelon and we soak up the vitamin D. Best of all I take too many pictures that look exactly the same year after year.

I’ve had to think about sharing the village details with anyone coz you know I don’t want crazy people going there and spoiling it but like the rest of Greece, Rhodes is struggling financially since the crash in 2008. So many people rely on tourism that Rhodes does need as many people as possible to visit and if staying in a hotel, particularly all inclusive ones, to get out and explore and spend a bit of money in local shops and restaurants. Exploring is so easy to do on Rhodes. 

The bus service is really good, its regular, its cheap and you can ride up and down the length of the island in air-conditioned comfort for about €5.00. We just hire a car now, its cheaper to get a car when we arrive for our whole stay than it is to get a taxi transfer to the south of the island – like most things Greek, that doesn’t make sense but that’s how it is. Lindos is too cute, if visiting use the car parks, the first time we visited we drove down the uber steep hill and our little car barely made it back up the incline.

So I’ve concluded the reliable comfort of having a holiday with no major surprises in a familiar environment that requires no emotional labour together with lovely people, sunshine, empty (pebble) beaches, gallons of iced coffee and handmade ice cream is what I love about Gennadi and what will be keeping me coming back for many years. If that makes me boring, I’m so good with that. Gennadi, Rhodes is my utopia, my happy place and I’m already excited about visiting in 2020.

Safe solo travelling according to your mother

A few days ago I responded to a tweet about practical advice for solo female travelling and my response has been saved loads so I thought I’d put all my thoughts into a blog post.  I have travelled lots on my own, mostly for work and to very safe places across the US, Europe and West Africa but the practical things, I think, are the same no matter where you go.

Because my child has a horrible independent and stubborn streak, that she could only have inherited from her father, this is the advice I wish she had taken when she went on her travels. She too went to mostly safe places but let me tell you, it doesn’t stop you worrying, especially when in your circle you have young women who while travelling have been kidnapped, lost all their money, passports and plane tickets and in one case broken her neck. Yes travelling is full of wonder and there is only ever a very small chance that anything will go wrong, but if it does there is plenty you can do to mitigate the stress and get home quickly.

In no particular order, here is my advice:-

Make sure someone has your schedule and make sure you have a copy of your passport in the cloud and with you, not with all your paperwork obviously. Make sure someone at home who you trust has a copy too. Get the right vaccinations in enough time for them to be effective or you may not be admitted to your destination.

Know where your Embassy is and save the local phone number and email address. Most Embassies have a team who have pretty much seen it all before and if necessary they can get a new passport to you quicker than anyone else as it can be sent via the Diplomatic bag not the regular post, if of course they are not able to produce an emergency passport themselves.

Store emergency numbers in your phone and in the cloud.

Book your flights with ABTA and ATOL members, if anything happens, they are insured to get you home. The UK government do not have a duty to get you home, if they have to they will charge you for it and its not easy to organise at all. The FCO regularly update travel advice, read it!

Get adequate travel insurance – the youngster I know who broke her neck didn’t have insurance, her parents are still paying the bill for having her transported to a hospital on the mainland and her treatment.

Use the safety features on your phone, and give someone access to those features just in case they do need to track where you are. My friend who was kidnapped in South America (for her organs) would have a very different story had her friend not managed to get away.

There are loads of apps and digital solutions that are brilliant for travelling, I have no idea what they are cause I write down everything but the one thing I always do is upload my photos to my cloud storage because I’d be heartbroken if I lost any of my pictures.

Don’t keep all your money or your cards in one place. Spilt your money across two bank accounts too just in case someone does clone your card, that way they can only access one account. When I go away I always transfer enough money for a couple of days into the account I use for travelling so the most I’ll ever loose is a couple of hundred pounds.

Leave anything your really value at home, things get lost and stolen, the simplest thing to avoid disappointment is to leave really precious items at home. Boring but sensible.

Be nice to the domestic staff where you are staying – these women know everything and they will look out for you and keep an eye on you.

Of course be a good visitor, learn the local does, don’t’s and customs and for the sake of my last nerve please don’t turn up in a village with your massive camera taking photos of people with a humble lifestyle like they are in a zoo. Poverty tourism is not cool.

Obviously practice safe sex and don’t get married. I don’t care how cute they are, do not come home with a baby, an infection or a spouse. If it is love (I met my husband on holiday) you’ll make it work beyond your travels and when you are dealing with the humdrums of reality.

My favourite, no one should be travelling anywhere without knowing how to knock someone out and protect themselves. Seriously, self defence training means you are aware of your surroundings, you engage your spidey senses, you are confident and you know that DNA sticks to your nails and your keys should you have punched someone out. The Suzy LamplughTrust has great advice but it isn’t hard to find a local self-defence class.

Finally, call your mother regularly (if she is in your life and not dysfunctional). You may be a grown woman with your own apartment, a string of degrees and a fabulous job, but that is all irrelevant when your little girl, who will always three to their mother, is going travelling. Yes of course we want you to have fun. We also want to know you are safe and if for any reason we think you are not we will happily ensure the local army comes to find you and deposits you on the first international flight home so you can be grounded until you are 40.

What have I missed?

I’m sure there is loads but in short, stay safe, have fun, call your mum and your travels will be amazing.

The other side of overwhelm

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Breakthough Writers Festival thoughtfully put together by Kerry Hudson to support and encourage more writers from working class backgrounds. I’ve not read it yet but her memoir, Lowborn reflects on growing up poor and with a mother who struggled. Two experiences I know very well. I am saving the book for my holidays, who doesn’t love a good cry on the beach! I have listened to Kerry read an abridged version of her book for Radio 4 and even though it made my eyes water when I was walking down Stoke Newington High Street it also made me happy, listening to Kerry’s voice is a lovely experience on its own. Anyway back the the festival. So much good information was shared that I was totally shell shocked for a good week while I processed everything. I’m not usually overwhelmed but I went to a The Psychology of Writing workshop with Vicky Newham and she got me, within ten minutes she simply asked what was I scared of? How I didn’t burst into tears I dunno. And I have a new shero, Sam Missingham she refreshingly speaks as she finds, a rare quality in current times. Follow her on twitter, she’s brilliant.

All the speakers and the wisdom they shared with absolute passion was something new to me. Everyone who spoke on the panels or delivered a workshop genuinely wanted all the writers in the room to finish their projects and send them out into the world. I think this was the first event I’ve been to where the speakers were 100% there simply to encourage those watching and following their footsteps. It was an absolute joy. So the other side of overwhelm I have been writing, plotting, thinking and day-dreaming – I’m comfortable claiming day-dreaming as a creative activity – I haven’t quite got to 1000 words a day but I’m joyfully working on it!

Where are all the short stories at?

To this island where the bottlebrush tree grows in the manicured gardens of the weathered white-washed houses of the Windrush returnees.

*****

I have totally fallen for short stories and now have a reading list as long as my arm, like I need more books to read – my tbr pile is already over a meter high.

The class I’ve been doing at City Lit has been fun, I get a little jarred by some of my class mates wanting me to write from a white person’s point of view and questioning my characters but I knew this would be the case going in so I just breathe it out and remember I joined the class to improve my writing and get used to sharing my work. All the writing related learning I’ve done before has been about long prose and I always knew my class mates were not my natural readers. Having set homework and deadlines as well as the the chance to read your work is great. It is a bit weird when after reading a piece there is silence but I’m learning this is a good thing so the next step is going beyond the safety of the classroom and finding outlets that publish short stories written by a brown women over 35 – all ideas gratefully received! And I want to read more short stories written by black and brown women over 35 too, so please send me all the links, I can’t wait to read them.

This time next year, I might not be a millionaire but if I am a published author that would be the best 50th birthday present I could ever wish for.

Penny pinching for a rainy day

Do you have a rainy-day fund?  I know it’s a luxury to save when there are so many bills to pay and life is just a never-ending drain on your money. Whatever goes into your bank account swiftly bounces straight out, but, but, but…. on wet days like we’ve been having recently do you wish you had a brought one less coffee and saved that £2.00  (£4.00 in London) and put it towards a rainy day fund or your credit card bill?

We have become so disillusioned with saving that few of us seem to do it, but it does soon add up. If you save as little as £13.00 a month for 20 years you’ll have nearly £4,000 in the bank. Granted it’s not a huge amount of savings but I reckon a lot of people could easily save £13.00 a month and some savings is definitely better than none.  If you can save £20.00 that’s well over £5,000 in 20 years at the current interest rate and if the rates improve that’s more dosh for you to spend on a fancy holiday or a pair of diamond studs. The point is in a world where we can buy more clothes than we have space for at the expense of everything saving a few pounds a month will make a difference to your pocket, your future, the planet and probably your pride coz you’ll be well happy you have a little nest egg growing. Great if you can save more, but don’t think a few pounds a month won’t make any difference – it does, quickly and chances are you won’t miss it.

If you feel the need to open an account right now – I’ve just opened a new savings account with the Post Office – took about three minutes online and I opened it with a whole £1.00!  I’ve no massive goal and I’ve made a note to check the interest in a year’s time in case it goes down to zero. I’m just gonna fling in a couple of pounds here and there over the month, one less bunch of flowers, return an item at the supermarket till, walk instead of take the bus and transfer the £1.50 I’ve saved from the pocket of TFL as I walk. Proper penny pinching but I think I’m gonna enjoy the challenge and the treats as I will spend whatever I save on big birthdays, I won’t have much in there for 50 but the next withdrawal will be 60 – that’s a holiday with my girls and hopefully we’ll still have our own teeth.

Hopefully you’ll realise I am absolutely no financial expert and this is my opinion, not my qualified advice – you have Martin Lewis for that. If however I have inspired you to invest in a bond that makes a million I do of course want at least 1% of your savings pot.

The unintended consequences of an ironed school shirt

I wrote this post the other day and then got busy and forgot to post it, but this morning I got an email inviting my boy to be a school ambassador and in the email it noted how smart he always looks which kinda underlines why I wrote the post in the first place…

I did not grow up, ensure dull men and bully bosses to spend my life ironing yet every Sunday night during term time I iron my son’s five white school shirts and three pairs of black trousers. I don’t iron them because I have nothing better to do or because I want him to look extra smart, supermarket shirts are perfectly passable un-ironed on a school kid in my opinion, I press them because of the unintended consequences of an ironed school shirt.

You see, I think we do make up our minds about a person when we first set eyes on them and I want people to see a boy, who is growing into a man, who is loved and cared for. Of course you can be loved and cared for in a wrinkled shirt but when society makes up its mind about black boys without them even opening their mouths we have to find multiple ways to decode the subliminal messages and stereotype thinking and I’ve found a starched shirt with a hint of lavender water gives him the edge.  His teachers always comment how well turned out he is, I’m pretty sure they know he is not handy with a spray bottle and the cotton setting so they unconsciously know he has parents who make an effort for him and they treat him with the respect he deserves. I’ve seen a lot of bully teachers at my boy’s new school and fortunately only one of them has messed with my boy – they were given a quick lesson in manners and have behaved ever since. The others read the visual clues.    

I remember listening to a discussion about how gangs prey on kids and the ones they target; those who look like someone is not coming to get them. My son has a clean shirt and well-greased skin, not just because he is loved, but so it is clear to anyone that may think there is a weak link that there is no fragility in his circle of protection. And though he would never admit it my boy also knows the difference looking sharp makes and I think he secretly likes the smell of lavender; it’s reassuring and reminds him school is only for a few hours a day. My boy also knows his clean and crisp shirt is an act of love, he notices kids who don’t have clean uniform and he questions what is going on in that family where washing isn’t done. Now I know the struggles many families face so I’m not here to judge, its bloody tough out there and sometimes something has to give. And yes all kids are vulnerable to gangs, I’m just recognising that where possible don’t under estimate the difference an ironed shirt makes to your kid and the people around them and remember the saying “Fix Up, Look Sharp” was around long before Dizzy Rascal.

The girl who smelt like cheese

I have started a short story writing class at City Lit and its so much fun. It’s a complete mixture of people and the tutor is a doll. Most of the class like me, have written professionally for years but have never been confident enough to write creatively for more than fun. Our group also includes a couple of writers with agents and books and everything and helpfully a GP who wants to write creatively and not for medical journals. Of the wannabe writers tribe most of us have work stuff in drawers and saved on memory sticks. Us wannabe writers totally bonded over not sharing our work coz it’s uncomfortable and terrifying but I’m not here for that, so here goes, here is my homework. We had to write a 500 word flash fiction based on the prompt ‘an unexpected relative’.

The girl who smelt like cheese

She was stood in the living room when I got home from school. Her hair greased into pigtails which curved over her ears like bananas, red and white polka dot ribbons held the ends of her hair together.

I looked at Mummy and I looked at the girl who was much bigger than me, she was almost a teenager, much too big for the Magic Roundabout which on any other Tuesday afternoon Mummy would watch with me while the house was quiet because the boys were at football and Daddy worked late at the train station. The girl looked familiar but I’d never seen her before. She had the same nose as my mother and the curve of her body underneath her blue coat with red buttons, which was identical to mine, was the shape of all my aunts.

Who was this girl stood in my living room smelling like cheddar cheese, taking up space, my space in my house? I hoped she wasn’t staying past tea time.  She looked more like Aunt Grace than like Aunt Eunice, maybe she was a cousin? I don’t remember if all of Aunt Grace’s children lived in England or if they lived in Canada with their father. Aunt Grace had so many children I’m not sure if even she knew how many she had or where they lived.

I looked again at Mummy who was busy looking through her purse, her Sunday purse the one with a gold clasp, the one she kept for best, maybe she was looking for this strange girl’s identity? I noticed a-side the settee was a small suitcase, blue again, with an air luggage tag tied to the black handle, ‘Air Jamaica’ it read, with our address, 22 Richmond House, Carmen Estate, Catford, England, neatly marked out in pencil under the typeface that said ADDRESS. This funny looking girl with her bad hair and copycat coat was from Jamaica. She made me nervous this girl, my stomach tightened not in a good way like when you won a goldfish at the fun fair, but scared, like when a teacher asked you to stay behind after class – who was she, why had no-one ever said anything about her and why was Mummy not bothering to introduce her?

Finally, Mummy saw me stood in the doorway, my tiny frame hid behind the wall.

“Ahhh Jaqueline” she said, beckoning me to come into the room, “this is your sister Marlene, she’s come from Jamaica to live with us, come na, come say hello to your sister and then you can show up to your room.”

My so called sister smiled at me, the gap between her teeth looked funny, like her teeth were too big for her mouth. As soon Mummy wasn’t looking Marlene sharply snapped off her smile and squished her lips firm.  Looking down that family nose of hers she turned her whole face into a scowl and sneered at me. This sister situation was not going to end well, without yet saying a word Marlene had made it clear that she was not here to make friends, she was here to take over.

Why is feminism still so racially divided?

Last week I went along to a book reading for the launch of Bernadine Evaristo’s new novel ‘Girl Woman, Other’ (which I am loving btw) and there was an insightful discussion about feminism, what it means now and what it meant 20 years ago? This got me thinking more over the next few days so I thought I’d share a question I have been asking myself for about the past 20 years.  Why is feminism still so racially divided?

At the moment there is lots of discussion around lack of opportunity for women to work flexible hours, about equal pay, about lack of career advancement. All really relevant discussions that need to be had. What no one is talking about is why black and brown women are rarely included in these conversations? Do these workplace barriers not apply to all women regardless of ethnicity?

I’m a feminist I always have been, to me feminism means all my sisters have equal opportunities for success and personal growth whatever that means to them. What I observe is the feminists with the loudest voices only considering what they, with their white privilege want and in my nearly 49 years of reflection I haven’t known feminism to be any different.

Back in the 1970s and 80s we had a society with the economic security to enable all women to stay at home, isn’t that what the history books tell us? Well this applied to some white women and very few black women. The black women I knew at this time worked two jobs to make up the family’s income make ends meet. In the 1990s we saw more mixed relationships and, in this decade, the only black women I knew who could be stay at home mums if they wanted to, were those married to white men.

Roll forward to now and we seem to be going backwards in time, I know a handful of black women who have chosen to stay at home because work doesn’t work for their families. They face the same barriers as their white counterparts but I rarely see any of the white feminists with big platforms genuinely championing all of their sisters or holding a seat for black and brown women at their table. I see a token black woman in their campaign photos, ticking a diversity box, I do not see genuine heartfelt sisterhood across the racial divide.

To be able to campaign for anything you have to have the luxury of time. It’s not that black and brown women are not concerned or affected by lack of workplace opportunity, I’d suggest the reason they are not leading campaigns is because they are busy working, it’s really hard to campaign for more when you don’t have any flexibility in your day. Black and brown women are highly represented in the public sector, retail, hospitality, healthcare and education. It’s impossible to turn up to a mid-week 11.00am campaign photo-shoot when you have a job, bills to pay and you only get a 15-minute coffee break.

So why is feminism still so racially divided? Is it because mostly, the feminists with the biggest platforms are white, haven’t worked on their privilege or recognised that sisterhood is bigger than the women they can easily access? The opportunity for women to have power and influence over the policy decisions that impact all women has never been greater, I hope for us all that those with the best access to creating change quickly take on the challenge of including the voices and life experiences of women that are busy working.

My journey begins

Thanks for joining me! I’m diving straight in …..

I have written a post for the brilliant Make Motherhood Diverse blog, about Mothers Day when your mother doesn’t have the emotional tools to love you.

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“Mother’s Day is presented to us an opportunity to reflect on the wonderful moments we shared with the woman who nurtured and loved us, that wholesome woman who held us when we fell. Bloom and Wild have boldly given customers the opportunity to opt out of the hearts and flowers marketing messages, someone in that office knows, Mother’s Day doesn’t always fill your heart with happy memories, sometimes it’s a trigger for disturbing memories.”

You can read the piece in full here