Archive for December, 2012

On Ernest Cole

28 December 2012


Over at The Futures Company’s blog I have a short end-of-year piece on the South African photographer Ernest Cole. It seemed a good idea to share a version of it here.

I thought I knew the political and cultural history of the anti-apartheid struggle well, having followed it closely during my teens and twenties. But I realised at the Barbican’s sprawling exhibition of ’60s and ’70s photography that I knew nothing of Ernest Cole, the black photographer who was the first to document the petty humiliations and the institutional cruelty of South Africa’s legalised racism. Cole changed his name and his history to qualify as “Coloured” rather than “Black” under South Africa’s Pass Laws, which gave him the freedom to travel. In the early ’60s he became the country’s first black freelance photographer, filming – often illicitly – life under apartheid; his work was published as a book, House of Bondage, in 1967.

The image at the top of this post, of Africans having to risk their lives crossing railway tracks to board their poorly signed and vastly overcrowded trains, is described by a commentator in the exhibition as being the single photograph which expresses the ugliness of apartheid.

Speaking truth to power comes with a price: the book was banned in South Africa and by the time it came out Cole had exiled himself in the United States, where he died in poverty in 1990, living just long enough to see Mandela released from jail. But thanks to his white South African contemporary, David Goldblatt, also represented at the Barbican exhbition, many of his originals have been rescued from the vaults.

On a related theme, I fulfilled a small ambition this year to make a video of Robert Wyatt’s version of Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Biko’. It’s on YouTube.

The Ernest Cole picture at the top of this post, ‘Train Staton’, came via the blog (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography. It is used with thanks. There is more (and some great links) at Colin Penter’s excellent blog, and is used with thanks. The exhibition, ‘Everything was moving‘, is at the Barbican in London until January 13th.

Walking ‘A Christmas Carol’

24 December 2012

23122012335I spent an afternoon just before Christmas on a walking tour in London of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which seemed appropriate at the close of his 200th anniversary year. We started near St Dunstan’s, where Scrooge lived, and ended at the graveyard that once belonged to the church of St Peter Cheap, near Cheapside, where Scrooge is taken by the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to see his grave.

In between we stopped in the lee of St Michael Cornhill, where Scrooge had his office (close to the The George and Vulture in Castle Court, one of Dickens’ favourite haunts), in Leadenhall Market, which in an earlier incarnation may have been the location where Scrooge sent the boy to buy the turkey for the Cratchit family, and the Royal Exchange where Scrooge is also taken by Christmas Yet To Come.

A Christmas Carol, written in six weeks, was an instant hit when it was published in 1843. While a lot of Britain’s modern Christmas traditions were imported from Germany by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, our guide argued that Dickens had played a large part in the 19th century (re)invention of Christmas, connecting a new urban Christmas with rural Christmas traditions that were dying out. Historian Philip Allingham agrees:

It is A Christmas Carol, published on 19 December 1843, that has preserved the Christmas customs of olde England and fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without, and smoking bishop, piping hot turkey, and family cheer within.

Piecing together the story, it was striking how this idea of Christmas was constructed through newly developing industrial age media. The Christmas tree gained popularity after a story in the 1848 Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News featured the royal family’s tree at Windsor, according to the guide, with the description a “pretty German toy”; many of Dickens’ other Christmas stories were serialised in the new mass circulation magazines serving an increasingly literate population; the Christmas card itself grew in popularity because of the falling cost of printing and the introduction in the 1840s of the penny post. And Dickens, in Christmas Carol, was the first to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” in print.

Perhaps it is not surprising that when Dickens died, a Cockney barrow-girl was overheard saying, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The photograph at the top of this post, of the Christmas tree in Leadenhall Market, in by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons Licence: some rights reserved.

‘My children’

22 December 2012


I know: you wait for ages for blog posts mentioning Poems on the Underground, and then two come along more or less at once.

But I was tidying up a bit ahead of Christmas and found a slim volume called World Poems on the Underground, published as part of London 2012’s cultural festival and given to Tube passengers. Don’t let anyone tell you that there aren’t compensations for travelling on Europe’s most expensive transit system. (That’s English irony, before I get any comments.)

Anyway, the booklet contains one of my favourite Poems on the Undergound, one that I’d transcribed when I first saw it, by the Kurdish poet Choman Hardi, who now lives in London.

My Children

I can hear them talking, my children
fluent English and broken Kurdish.

And whenever I disagree with them
they will comfort each other by saying:
Don’t worry about mum, she’s Kurdish.

Will I be the foreigner in my own home?

Choman Hardi

It’s from her collection Life For Us, published by the essential Bloodaxe Books. There’s an excellent interview with Hardi by Benjamin Morris at Textualities.

The last rotten borough in England

7 December 2012


One of the virtues of Occupy at St Paul’s was that it shone a welcome light on the workings of the City of London Corporation, which is the last rotten borough in England. As the poster – photographed in the City recently – demonstrates, the City of the London Corporation is the only place in the country where people get an extra votes because of where they work, and businesses get to vote as well. Of course, when the rest of the country’s electoral system was reformed in the 19th and 20th centuries, for some reason the City of London was excluded so that its ancient Saxon electoral system (opens pdf) could be preserved.

And of course, the City Corporation has other privileges, including its own police force, its own ‘observer’ at the House of Commons, and exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Sounding awfully Starbucks it insists that “it abides by all laws and publishes all accounts and decisions it is required to.” Of course. At least in this coming election a group has been created to challenge the way the Corporation works. (The City maintains the fiction that everyone stands for election as an independent; the City Reform Group is offering support to candidates who are willing to sign up to a series of promises for more openness.)

As a colleague said to me, we’ve given the City its own government, its own police force, its own lobbyist, its own laws, everything it’s asked for, and all it’s done in return is bankrupted us. As with other demanding and selfish children, it’s probably time to put some limits in.

The picture at the top of this post is taken by Andrew Curry and is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.