My review of “Ants Among Elephants An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” Sujatha Gidla

ants among

 

Sujatha Gidla’s new book is not about the modern India of bollywood, nuclear weapons and a thriving economy. It is her family’s story set at the end of British colonial rule,  a family of “untouchables” – part of the caste system  which dictates  their  role in society and even where they live. The title of the book sums up the “untouchable” experience, being an ant among elephants, at the bottom of a system that is determined to squash you.

One in six people in India are born as “untouchable:  “whose special role – hereditary duty – is to labour in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all.”

It was when Sujatha left India to study in America that she decided to talk to her family about her background. Her uncle K. G. Satyamurthy, known as SM, was a founder in the early 1970s of a Maoist guerrilla group, which the Indian government designated as the biggest threat to national security.  His sister and Sujatha’s mother, Manjula –  who against all odds  becomes a teacher-  is the  heroine of the book.

 Ants Among Elephants is  both her family’s  story and that of the independence movement in India. Sujatha’s account of discovering her family’s history is a fascinating as the story itself. It is based on taped interview with her mother and uncle and their contemporaries over fifteen years. She also visited the places where her family had lived, to remote villages where she came across people who were happy to share their memories and backed up the stories that her mother and uncle  had told her.

The story begins in the 1800s in Khamman district where her grandparents were part of a nomadic clan. They were not Hindus,  but had their own tribal goddesses living a remote forest based existence. But when the British cleared the forest for teak plantations their family was forced out, took up farming and lived alone near a lake. They were also now designated as despised outcasts and  “untouchables”. But it is a familiar story in India where to this day  tribal people are often driven off their land and forced to become  landless labourers.

Ants Among Elephants  is a story of how people, however poor and marginalised,  can and do fight back.  The book takes the reader through a complex history of mass and individual opposition to poverty and injustice. It is an era in which  politics are writ large,  one that  delivered independence to India but one that sold short the untouchable community.

Satyam became an important member of the Communist Party, sacrificing everything, including  a normal life and his family, to take up the struggle for justice for the poor. He carried on this political work to the end of his life when he could hardly walk and his supporters had to carry him on their backs through the jungle.

Manjula’s story is the most poignant. Her struggle for an education and a decent job is heartbreaking.  But her own philosophy kept her going. “Owing to the twin influences of Christianity and Communism, Manjula believed that the task of removing all the immorality, injustice and corruption from the nation rested upon the shoulders of people in positions of responsibility, however slight, and that everyone must do his or her part.”

At the age of fourteen Sujatha followed  her family’s politics and   joined the Radical Students Union, the student wing of the People’s War Group. And when she took part in a strike at college she was arrested – the only girl. “The police made it impossible for our families to find us by continually moving us from one precinct to another. We were deprived of food and water and sanitary facilities for long periods and tortured.”

She now lives in the USA and is the first Indian woman to work as a conductor on the New York subway. “When I left and made friends in a new country, only then did the things that happened to my family, the things  we had done, became stories. Stories worth telling, stories worth writing down.”

Ants Among Elephants is not just a story worth writing down, it is an important part of Indian history and one that hopefully will inspire other people to follow in the footsteps of Manjula, Satyam and Sujatha.

Buy it here

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Posted in biography, book review, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, political women, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

My review of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” by Jon Robins

guilty until proven

 

In the introduction to this critical and crucial analysis of the criminal justice (or rather injustice) system Michael Mansfield QC (who represented people in  many of the cases mentioned)  reminds  the reader that after the 1980s landmark miscarriage of justice cases such as the Birmingham Six, which revealed gross non-disclosure by the judiciary,  safeguards were brought in which were supposed to stop a repeat of these cases. But this book shows that the system is now in crisis and that  little has changed since the bad old days of the 1980s.

In chapter after chapter Robins reveals how the system is in a state of permanent decline and the effect that this has had on people caught up in it. The budget for the Ministry of Justice has been cut by 40% since 2010,  affecting  every part of the system from prisons to legal aid.  The Criminal Cases Review Commission,  a state-funded miscarriage of justice watchdog, which was set up in response to the Birmingham Six case, is now so underfunded and overwhelmed with cases that it is dysfunctional.

The Birmingham Six, and many not so well known other Irish cases, were lucky in that national campaigns were set up and run by grassroots Irish community groups, such as  the Irish in Britain Representation Group of which I was a member.

IBRG also vociferously campaigned against The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary)   Act which was rushed through Parliament in 1974 after the Birmingham pub bombings. This draconian legislation allowed the police to carry out raids throughout the Irish community. One of the few people who was brave enough at this time  to help those detained was Sister Sarah Clarke who later wrote in her biography;

People picked up under the PTA had no rights whatever in those early days. They disappeared. Eventually we found out they could be held for seven days. Police denied they were holding people. Detainees were questioned at all hours, day and night, and solicitors were not allowed in….Young children were questioned about their fathers’ and mothers’ habits and friends, and they were bribed with sweets.   (No Faith in the System; A Search for Justice.)

 In the 1980s a campaign was set up to publicise what was going on,  to provide support for people detained and to campaign against this act. The PTA Research and Welfare Organisation acted as soon as an Irish person was arrested and ensured that they got legal advice – and a campaign if needed. These cases fitted into a “political category” which raised their profile, particularly in the years 1981-1998.

The publicity gained by campaigns such as the Birmingham Six  led to other Irish prisoners in non-political cases contacting us. In the IBRG archive at the WCML the files are bulging with cases including the correspondence from  Michael O’Brien of the Cardiff Newsagent Three.

IBRG also brought up the issue of Irish deaths in police custody. At one of our Coventry meetings the sons of Leo O’Brien spoke about their father who had been arrested by the police as “drunk” but in fact  had suffered a blot clot and  was left in a police cell without medical care. He later died . His family  asked for support for a leaflet and for  help with their campaign.

Non-Irish people would contact us and there is a letter from Sue Caddick, sister of Eddie Gilfoyle, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife. She asked for their leaflets to be circulated around the Irish networks and for publicity for meetings.

But, as Robins shows,  most people who are arrested and  convicted but are innocent are not so lucky. They are dependent upon themselves, a family member or friend to support them, a lawyer who is prepared to work pro bono, or a group such as the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, set up by Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six,  in 1991.

In 2018 the political settlement in the North of Ireland has emptied British prison of Irish political prisoners. A few years ago I spoke at a meeting in Oldham to a Muslim audience about how the Irish community defended themselves against legislation such as the PTA. The Muslim community has now taken over the mantle of the Irish as the latest “suspect community” and it seems highly likely that  similar miscarriage of justice cases may emerge.

Today miscarriages of justice are also more complex, including historical sexual abuse, “joint enterprise” convictions:  cases that do not fit easily into a category.

In conclusion Robins believes that we all have a stake in ensuring that the justice system works. “The increasing focus on convicting the guilty instead of protecting the innocent means that we may soon all have cause to fear the dawn raid.”

Buy it here

Read my blog posts about IBRG here

For a political history of the Irish in Manchester read “The Wearing of the Green” by Michael Herbert. Buy it here

Posted in book review, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

My review of “Tory Heaven” or “Thunder on the Right” Marghanita Laski

tory heaven 1

 

Marghanita Laski (24 October 1915 – 6 February 1988) was a writer and novelist who wrote fiction,  biography and plays. Born in Manchester,  she was part of an extended Labour supporting family,  her uncle was Harold Laski, for instance. An atheist,  she was also a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

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“Tory Heaven” came out in 1948 and,  as David Kynaston points out in the introduction, just like 2018, it was  a worrying time for the middle classes of this country. Whilst 1945 and the great social changes led by Labour Government improved the lives of the working classes,  it was a different case for the middle classes who felt they were now the oppressed,  both psychologically and economically.

Marghanita picks up on this in an insightful and comedic novel.  In “Tory Heaven” it is the Tories who win the General Election in 1945 and proceed to   recreate a class system with all the trappings of the eighteenth century. The population are now graded into social classes from A-E.  The A’s  are paid in gold sovereigns and are required to do nothing but live out the lives of the idle rich.  The middle classes are B’s,  while the C’s are servants from domestics to hairdressers. Trade Unionists, who cannot now strike are D’s:  the last category E’s include the despised intellectuals.

tory heaven 2

Central to the story is James Leigh-Smith, an English gentleman, for which read a privileged education,  with no particular skills, but an innate belief in his superiority due to his birth and upbringing.

James is pleasantly surprised to find that new Tory Government has classified the whole population according to  the five categories and he is in class A.  Enjoyable as this is for him,  when he goes to visit his parents he finds out that they have been changed by the social cohesion borne out of the Second World War and are not happy with the new system that forces them to rigidly abide by the rules of their class or face being  degraded.

The Leigh-Smiths now have to live up to their A classification,  which includes having to eat lots of dull and badly cooked food. As James’s father explains; “It’s the servants” his father said wearily. “They’re genuine C’s, of course, so they won’t be satisfied with less.”

The new classification system affects all aspects of people’s lives. During the War James’s sister, Joyce,  became a land girl and fell in love with the manager. His brother Rodney  explains the problems with this liaison. “So if Joyce (an A) goes and marries a B, we could none of us have anything more to do with her.”

As the reality of the new system plays out in front of James he begins to realise that for many people, of all classes, are unhappy with this particular Tory heaven.

“Tory Heaven” is a novel of its era,  although watching  James Rees Mogg on television one can see that he would make an excellent “A”!!  It is funny, ironic and says a lot about the British class system. Of course in 2018 the Rees Moggs and Boris Johnsons are seen as buffoons by most of us,  although the reality is that they do represent a significant position of power in the Tory Party and in the country.

Marghanita is an important novelist who  has been largely forgotten and Persephone Books have given us back a lively  satire set in a crucial  period of our history. In 2018 people in the UK are reflecting on what it means to be British in the context of Brexit and a rapidly changing society.  It is not just an important novel but as with all Persephone Books it is also  a beautifully produced one.

Buy it here

 

Posted in book review, Communism, labour history, novels, political women, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Women in Poland; Putting them back into the story of the Solidarity Movement.

solidarity-according-to-women

SOLIDARITY ACCORDING TO WOMEN

 

 

In 1981 riots broke out in Moss Side where I lived. It reflected the oppression experienced by the Afro-Caribbean  people in that area; that they were discriminated against in housing, education and employment.

After the riots, people like me –  a student living locally -joined the Moss Side Defence Committee. We raised money to support the many young people who had been given harsh sentences for sometimes taking part in the riots and sometimes for just being in the area.

One of the fundraising events was a social held in Hulme Labour Club and that night the actor  Anthony Booth (actor) showcased his new band “Putsch”. They came on the stage dressed in paramilitary outfits and sang songs about the new free trade union in Poland called Solidarity that had challenged the Communist state.

Manchester’s trade union politics at that time were still dominated by the Communist Party, who were pro-Soviet and suspicious of Solidarity,  but  younger non-Communists identified with the new Polish trade union and it was common to see trade unionists wearing the iconic red badge.

solidarity badge

Solidarity started in the huge Lenin  shipyard of Gdansk. Today Gdansk is a hotspot for cheap flights from the UK for even cheaper weekends away. But it is more than  a pretty town sitting on the side of the Baltic. It was where the Second World War began on 1 September 1939  and was home to my favourite writer,  Gunter Grass.

The European Solidarity Centre,  is a museum and library in Gdańsk, devoted to the history of Solidarity, the Polish trade union.

The ESC is an ugly building, made more human by the monument at the front of the building to shipyard workers shot down in 1970,   and by the story told in the exhibition.

The story of Solidarity is an exciting and inspiring one, particularly if you believe that trade unions are crucial in creating a democratic society.

But the exhibition is  dominated by mustachoied men in overalls and better off men in well-cut suits.  The shipyard was not a male workplace; 50% of the workers were women who did the manual work as well as administration, healthcare and catering. The women did not get equal pay,  even when doing some of the most dangerous work.

The strike in 1980 started because of one woman, Anna Walentynowicz, a veteran  activist for free trade unions,  who was rewarded for this by being sacked a few months before she was due to retire. But the shipyard workers refused to accept it and demanded that she should be reinstated. They won,  and Anna alongside another mustachoied  man, Lech Walesa,  became a co-founder of Solidarity. The strike became more than just about one woman it evolved into a broader movement for a democratic society. After eighteen days strikes broke out across Poland and the Government conceded to Solidarity’s demands.

Anna W

Anna

The women’s story is not told in the exhibition,  but I found a leaflet that had been produced to put them back into the history of Solidarity: Women’s Pathway Through Gdansk Shipyard.

womens pathway

Women played more than a 50% role in the events that took place in 1980. They not only ran the strike committee, they produced publications about events, stood at the gates physically keeping people in the shipyard and in support of the strike, and  were beaten, abused and imprisoned alongside the men and went into hiding for many years to avoid being put into prison.

The strike was not just about setting up free trade unions , but about other freedoms and there were 21 demands made by the strike committee which  were written up on boards and displayed at the entrance to the shipyard. Workers demanded everything from a say in how the economy worked to childcare support.

21 demands

21 Demands

In 1985 Anna said; “We must not wait passively. A free Poland is our aim, but no one will give us that freedom. Our passivity will result in their murdering more and more of us, in more and more people suffering. We must educate, because even when a free Poland is achieved, the nation will be so exhausted that there will be no one to lead it.”

The events of 1980 were part of a long historical struggle by the people of Poland for a democratic society. One that heightened after the Second World War and their forceful takeover by the Communist Party and their incorporation into the Soviet empire.

In Warsaw I met up with filmmakers Marta Dzido and Pytor  Sliwowski. In their film “Solidarity According to Women ”(2016) by I found out the true story of the women’s involvement in the strike, the wider politics of Poland at that time and for me most importantly; what happened to the women in the days, weeks, months and years after the strike.

As Marta comments “After 16 interviews, I know that the women’s fight was no different from the men’s. The women were active, they had their political dreams although they never cared about being leaders of the trade union. Only one of them was invited to the Round Table discussions: Grażyna Staniszewska. After ’89 few women of the Solidarity movement decided to enter politics, which doesn’t mean that they gave up on being involved in the public sphere.”

The Solidarity women have almost completely been airbrushed from the official history of the strike and its afterward. This film was partly funded by the ESC but you cannot find it, or any reference to it in the Museum.

This is not surprising as life for women in Poland today under a right wing populist government is not easy. There is a counter movement and women are organising particularly over the threat to abortion rights. Marta and Pytor’s film is important history, it shows how women and men have always fought back against repression in Poland and hopefully will inspire present day generations that they can fight and win.

You can buy “Solidarity According to Women” here emotikonfilm@gmail.com

You can watch a documentary  film about Anna Walentynowicz  on youtube here

 

 

Posted in Communism, education, feminism, films, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The IBRG archive at the WCML. Part Four; How Irish women played an active role in IBRG.

In the 1970s the Irish community in Britain was represented by the Federation of Irish Societies; an organisation made up of mainly men who were Irish born. IBRG was set up in 1981 because of the F.I.S.’s reluctance to speak out on the issue of the Hunger Strikes in the North of Ireland and to recognise the discrimination and deprivation facing the Irish in this country.

IBRG reflected not just a more politicised generation of Irish born in this country,  but an organisation that was 50/50 women and men. From 1981-2001 there was a female president (Maire O’Shea), two female chairs (Bernadette Hyland and Virginia Moyles), as well as officers including Bridget Galvin, Judy Peddle, Laura Sullivan, Caitlin Wright, Majella Crehan and Jackie Jolley. There was a Women’s Subcommittee, a Women’s Officer, IBRG women’s meetings,  while in  common to many radical  organisations at that time, crèches were provided for all national meetings.

Mna 3

National IBRG Officers; Laura Sullivan, Diarmuid Breatnach, Virginia Moyles and Pat Reynolds

Manchester IBRG reflected this national trend. It was made up of Irish born, second and third generation women with ages ranging from 20s to 50s, and comprised students, public sector workers,  single women and mothers.  A separate women’s group was set up to organise events that spoke to Irish women’s experiences. The women taking part included Ann Hilferty, Joan Brennan, Eileen Carroll and Linda Ryan.

Tensions between traditional Irish organisations in Manchester, the Council of Irish Associations,  and IBRG came to a head in 1988 over the content of Irish Week, which was organised and funded by Manchester City Council as part of their wider policy over Ireland.

IBRG were excluded by the official Irish Week Committee  (made up of traditional Irish organisations, mainly men) from  a meeting to confirm events for the Week,  although two members of IBRG did manage to  attend. At that meeting the events organised by the IBRG Women’s Group, including a showing of a video on strip searching and a women’s only day, were voted down. Confusing another event about the Birmingham Six with IBRG they also vetoed a meeting about the campaign.

Across local and national media the rightwing representatives of the C.I.A. tried to justify their position.   Tom McAndrew, spokesperson for the C.I.A.,  defended their objection to the Birmingham Six meeting on the grounds that it  had “no place in a large cultural event”. There is a file in the archive with the correspondance relating to the Irish Week.

Manchester City Council, and Councillor Graham Balance, to his credit, and to the dismay of McAndrew and his organisation, defended the right of IBRG to our events and ensured that they were included in all the publicity.  But a separate Irish Week magazine was produced by the C.I.A. which excluded  the Women’s Day and the Birmingham Six meeting.

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The Women’s Day was called Mna nha’Eireann (Women in Ireland) and was a day of workshops run by Irish second generation writers, including  Maude Casey and Moy McCrory. Issues covered included education, class and growing up Irish in Britain. It’s hard to understand in 2018 how threatened the traditional Irish men and their organisations felt by such an innocuous event!

Mna1

Mna nah’Eireann (Women in Ireland) Day

London had a bigger Irish community, and because of funding by GLC and leftwing Labour Councils,  there were many organisations run by and for the specific needs of Irish women. Each year there was a London Women’s Conference. In  1989 IBRG had a woman chair, Bernadette Hyland, the first of any national  Irish communnity organisations, and she gave one of the keynote speeches  at the conference. Bernadette said; “I would like to actively encourage Irish women to join the organisation..in IBRG..we need to reflect the experiences and realities of both Irish women and Irish men”.

In 1991 IBRG Women’s Officer Majella Crehan produced a submission to the Irish Republic’s Commission on the Status of Women.  IBRG women joined with other women’s groups to raise issues including strip searching and abortion. IBRG supported the annual Women’s Delegation to the North of Ireland and IBRG women usually took part, often paid for by IBRG branches.

In the 1990s International Women’s Day was a highly politicised event. It was not about lifestyle or confidence building –  and it certainly was not a branded event.  The National Assembly of Women organised the IWD on 9 March 1993 at the Pankhurst Centre, and the speakers included Maria A Florez, Cuban Ambassador and Bernadette Hyland of IBRG.

Manchester IBRG held many events, and whether it was a conference, a film festival, a book launch, women and their lives were a constant theme.

Irish women were visible in IBRG meetings, both locally and  nationally,  and represented the organisation in Britain and Ireland.  In the 1980s and 1990s women were a significant part of the Irish community in this country, mnay of them want to assert themselves as Irish and demand justice and equal rights, and IBRG reflected this in its activities.

Read more about IBRG in Michael Herbert’s book “The Wearing of the Green” here

Posted in feminism, human rights, International Women's Day, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Revolting Women”a new play about Sylvia Pankhurst.

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Mikron Theatre’s new show “Revolting Women” is a  contribution to the commemorations of the extension of the vote to all men and a small group of middle-class women in 1918.  Centre stage is the radical Pankhurst Sylvia who broke with her mother and sister to promote the cause of working class women and men and universal suffrage.

The play concentrates on the period from 1911 to 1918. Sylvia moves to the East End of London and sets up the East End Federation of the WSPU in a shop in Bow,   one of the poorest areas but an area that had a militant working class and  was close to the House of Commons so that they could easily demonstrate there.

sylvia at bow

Sylvia speaking in Bow

Sylvia (played by Daisy Ann Fletcher) was the youngest Pankhurst who,  unlike her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel,  believed that it was working class women who should be centre to the struggle for the vote and for a new, more equal society. The play captures the tension between the Pankhursts through a series of letters to Sylvia written by Christabel who had fled to Paris to avoid imprisonment from where she issued dictats.

Sylvia finds comradeship with local woman Lettie (Rosamund Hine) and we are taken through one of the most intense parts of the suffrage campaign. It’s a time when the government, under siege by women prepared to go to prison for their rights, uses forced feeding and then the “Cat and Mouse Act” to wear the women down. I have to say the song used in this part “Tell me a tale Miss Wardress” seems unbelievable and totally inappropriate.

Mikron is not a political theatre company – most of their shows are happy stories ranging from the chocolate industry to the Women’s Institute – and  they have a deserved reputation for good stories told through great songs and music.

“Revolting Women” is no exception,  but it is also a serious story and one that does not end well for the main protagonist Sylvia.  Trying to keep the audience involved through upbeat songs and comic moments , even when the storyline was the opposite,  for me  undermines  some of the real history of this period.  One example of this was the use of a male actor (James McLean) playing Christabel in the background as Sylvia reads her sister’s  increasingly threatening  letters.

It is not a story that ends happily either,  as Sylvia was devastated in 1918 when the movement is split,  and her mother and Christabel welcomes a new franchise bill that only gives a small number of propertied women the vote. Her response was “Saddened and oppressed by the great world tragedy, by the multiplying graves of men and the broken hearts of women, we hold aloof from such rejoicings. They stride with a hollow and unreal sound upon our consciousness.”  (Workers’ Dreadnought, 16 February 1918)

Again, Mikron is trying to hard to give us a happy ending,   concentrating  on  the 17 women standing for election in 1918, including Christabel. But it was Sylvia’s comrade Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz who was  the first woman to be elected to Parliament. Strangely this is not mentioned.

 “Revolting Women” is an excellent production and at a time when a present day Pankhurst (great granddaughter Helen) is prepared to line herself up with Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, the story of socialist Sylvia and the role of working class women in the suffrage campaign is a worthwhile story to tell.

Buy tickets here

Posted in Communism, drama, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

My review of “Where are you really from” by Tim Brannigan

tim brannigs

 

In the 1970s I went to a girls Catholic (read Irish) secondary school in south Manchester. Most of the girls were like me, second generation Irish, with a sprinkling of Irish born, like my friends who were had recently arrived from Dublin.

There were a small number of  black girls in the school who to me were just school friends. Marilyn( who fancied my brother) and Bernadette who was held up as a role model for the rest of us. I had little awareness, at that time, of how difficult their lives as black Irish people were going to be.

This only became apparent to me  when many years later when, as an activist in the Irish community, I was doing some research on Irish identity,  and one of the women I interviewed  told me  that she had found out she was adopted. Her real mother was an Irish woman who had had an affair with an African man.

Tim Brannigan in his book “Where are You From” tells a similar story,  although it took place in another Irish community across the water in the North of Ireland.

It is a familiar story; a woman goes out on the town, meets attractive man and has an affair which leads to a pregnancy. Only this is 1966, the woman is married, the man is African, and  there is no legal  abortion so Peggy (Tim’s mum) has to find a way of giving birth, not telling her family that it’s going to be a black baby, and keeping her marriage and family together.

The story of how Peggy cons everyone into believing she has had a stillbirth,  whilst the baby is then whisked off to a local children’s home says a great deal  about the tenacity of the woman.

One year  later Peggy, who has kept in touch with Tim, brings him home as an “adopted child.”  Tim grew up in a Republican family in Belfast during the so-called “Troubles”. Being black there was different from the rest of Britain. “In Northern Ireland, I may not have been unique but I was certainly a rarity, a “novelty” as some people described my presence”.

But racism did exist.  Tim grew up in a society where racist programmes such as The Comedians and Till Death us Do Part were mainstream alongside a nasty political agenda led by politicians including Enoch Powell.

Outside school Tim had to contend with living in a community that had British soldiers walking down their streets. “It was soldiers from the British Army who introduced me to the full range of racial insults”. One incident stands out when  a black soldier tries to bribe eight year old Tim with a pound note for information about the IRA.

“Where are you really from” is not just Tim’s story but a story about an important period of Irish history. In 1972 the British Army shot dead 14 innocent people in the Bogside in Derry and Tim witnessed the reaction in his community. “The bloody conflict was intensifying and my family was right in the thick of it. I was six years old.”

Intertwined with a deepening political crisis in Ireland Tim also had to deal with his mother telling him the true story of his birth. But his response was “I was happy with my place in the world. I was still  me; still  black, Irish and Republican.”

Being Republican meant joining Sinn Fein, being part of a community that supported the IRA and  in time Tim going to prison. He had been framed by a local informer and was to spend five years in jail. But no ordinary prison; these were the H-blocks where Republican prisoners were organised into a “commune”. “It’s very existence was a challenge to the prison authorities. It gave a socialist, collective to every aspect of our lives.”

Tim left prison in 1995 as events changed in  the North of Ireland. He went onto to become a journalist, stayed in Belfast, spent the last year of his mother’s life looking after her, and finally met his father.

“Where are You Really From” is unique as a  memoir of a working class black Irishman.  His story is made all more more interesting because he grew up in a Republican community in Belfast in one of the most turbulent periods of its history.  Unlike some of my black Irish friends he survived his origins because as he acknowledges : “I had a hero for a mother who fought from the day I was born for what she thought was right and what was best for me.”

 

 

Posted in book review, Catholicism, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, North of Ireland, Uncategorized, working class history, young people | Tagged , | 2 Comments