Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: David Kynaston

Tired and Emotional

A short version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 6 2017

 

The other day, I was reading HLD Mahindapala’s blog about the last days of Prabhakaran, I was surprised to read this: “In a desperate bid K. Pathmanathan, the arms procurer appointed as Prabhakaran’s sole representative abroad, contacted Western journalists to send messages to George Brown, British Prime Minister, and President Obama.” George Brown died at the age of 70 in 1985.Brown did serve as British foreign secretary (with embarrassing results) from 1966 to 1968. The British foreign secretary in 2009 was David Miliband.

One of the advantages I find from reaching my advanced age is that historians are publishing books about events that I remember because I lived through them. The doyen of post-war British history writers is Peter Hennessy (Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield). He was born the year after me so lived through the same events. Like me, he grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Like me, he was educated at a grammar school in Gloucester. I wonder if I met him when I was playing for the Rugby team of my school, Sir Thomas Rich’s (founded 1666), against the team of his school, Marling (founded 1887). I remember playing rugby at Marling School. The most vivid recollection of the event is being served tea and sandwiches by a team of gorgeous girls. The picture Hennessy paints of the time of my growing up in a series of books Never Again: Britain 1945–51 (1992), Having it so good : Britain in the fifties (2006) and Establishment and Meritocracy (2014)rings true for me.

David Kynaston has ploughed the same furrow. He was born in 1951; like me and Peter Hennessy, he lived through the period he was writing about. He published Austerity Britain, 1945–1951 In 2007 and it was highly praised, named “Book of the Decade” by The Sunday Times. I have it in the form of two volumes entitled A World to Build 1945-48 and Smoke in the Valley 1948-51. I found Kynaston’s work hugely enjoyable and generally reliable, although my confidence wobbled a little when he referred to boxer Randolph Turpin as Dick Turpin. I recall listening to Turpin’s fights on the radio (commentary by Eamonn Andrews, inter-round analysis from W Barrington Dalby) with my father. Kynaston intends to chronicle the history of Great from the end of World War II to the ascension of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Dominic Sandbrook is engaged in an exhaustive survey of the period I have lived through. In 2005, Sandbrook published Never Had It So Good, a history of Britain from the Suez Crisis to The Beatles, 1956–63.  The sequel, White Heat, covering the years 1964–70 and the rise and fall of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, was published in August 2006. Sandbrook continued the history of post-war Britain with State of Emergency (2010), covering the period 1970–1974, and Seasons in the Sun, which took the story up to the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979. He has said that a fifth volume, covering the period 1979–1984 and provisionally titled Who Dares Wins, may follow. Sandbrook’s books have won high praise but I am less enthusiastic. To my mind, he does not write as well as Hennessy and Kynaston and is prone to errors (one example is referring to the comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters as “Frank and Bernie Winters”). He often uses the horrible phrase “bored of”, which I first noticed in 1994. Sandbrook was born in 1974 (but has less hair than me) and often displays a tin ear for the period he is writing about. It really does not matter if more people liked Englebert Humperdinck than liked The Beatles but he keeps going on about it. There is little original thought in his books as his intention is to gather together what other people have written. He has been accused of plagiarism (by Michael C Moynihan, cultural news editor for The Daily Beast/Newsweek and the managing editor of Vice magazine – the man who exposed the plagiarism of Jonah Lehrer. He suggested that Sandbrook was shielded from criticism by his social connections, saying: “There is an element of protection. Media buddies who go to the same dinner parties and all the rest of it.” Sandbrook rejected the allegations and maintained that he “footnoted his sources, and if popular history books sometimes sound familiar that is because there are only so many ways to say things.)” Despite my doubts, Sandbrook has compiled a fascinating catalogue of George Brown stories.

George Brown

 

When he was Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, George Brown’s drunken antics caused great amusement to an electorate depressed by poor economic news. This story is probably apocryphal but I wish it were not. Brown attended a function somewhere in South America, having already laid a substantial alcohol foundation at a previous function. He is said to have made a bee-line for a gorgeously crimson-clad figure. George said: “Excuse me, but may I have the pleasure of this dance?” The recipient of Brown’s amorous intentions demurred and gave three reasons: “The first, Mr Brown, is that you’ve had too much to drink. The second is that this is not, as you suppose, a waltz that the orchestra is playing but the Peruvian national anthem, for which you should be standing to attention. And the third reason why we may not dance, Mr Brown, is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

Once, when he was presented to Princess Margaret at a reception, he knelt on the floor to kiss her hand only to find himself unable to get up again. In the words of his biographer, Peter Paterson, Brown was “accident-prone, outspoken to an extent rare among modern politicians, intensely patriotic, hardworking, even harder drinking, quick as a Gascon to take offence”. He was as swift to apologise for any offence given: he probably wrote more letters of apology than any politician in history”.

Emotional and Tired

Paterson called his biography Tired and Emotional. Private Eye has for many decades used the phrase “tired and emotional” as a euphemism for hopelessly inebriated. I often heard Brown’s slurred tones on the BBC Radio programme Any Questions. He would begin drinking whisky at lunchtime, and top up throughout the day, so he was usually drunk by the time he appeared in the Commons in the evening. “He started two gins ahead of everybody else,” one of his friends later recalled. “He’d go mad, suddenly berserk, on a couple of glasses of wine …Alcohol, no matter how small the amount, used to change him, change his personality so that he became very aggressive.”

 

A Life on the Right of the Left

 

Brown’s antecedents were in County Cork. He  was born in poor circumstances at Flat 22, I Block, Peabody Buildings, Duke Street, Lambeth, in his maternal grandmother’s flat built by the Peabody Trust, a housing charity. Soon after his birth, his family left and moved to the Peabody Trust block at Peabody Square, Blackfriars Road, Southwark, near Waterloo station. His father, also called George Brown, had worked as a grocer’s packer, lorry driver and served in World War I as a chauffeur to senior  British Army officers. He did not go to university but left school at 15.

 

Early Promise

 

Brown ran as a moderate candidate for the Chairmanship of the Labour League of Youth but at the Labour Party conference in 1937 he was defeated by Ted Willis, a left-wing candidate later known as the television creator of Dixon of Dock Green. In 1963, Brown had a drunken argument with actor Eli Wallach on American TV after the JFK assassination when Brown made a fool of himself by claiming a close friendship with Kennedy which never existed. Brown taunted Wallach for not knowing who Ted Willis was.

Member of Parliament

At the 1945 general election Brown won Belper with a majority of nearly 9,000. Brown was generally popular within the Parliamentary Labour Party. He briefly worked as PPS for Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton from April 1947. Brown launched an unsuccessful plot to have Clement Attlee replaced as Prime Minister by Ernest Bevin, although without consulting Bevin.

Attlee knew about Brown’s plot but appointed him as Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries as he thought it would be best to keep him busy. In April 1951, Brown was Minister of Works.

Opposition

When Labour lost the 1951 general election, Brown found himself forced to rely on an inadequate parliamentary salary. In 1953 he was hired as a consultant by the Mirror Group newspapers, enabling him to stay in politics. His natural campaigning ability became prominent, but also his tendency to be rude to those with whom he had disagreements.

After Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in January 1963 Brown made his challenge for the party leadership. At the first Shadow Cabinet meeting after Gaitskell’s death, Brown and his leadership rival Harold Wilson agreed to a clean fight. Wilson, who was accused by the right of undermining party unity, then informed the press that each agreed to serve under the other, which countered his reputation for plotting; Brown repudiated any such agreement, laying himself open to that accusation.

Serving under Wilson

Brown was given a new ministry to promote growth and national resurgence. However, the Department of Economic Affairs proved a disaster. The failure of the National Plan was a severe blow to Brown’s prestige and blamed its collapse on the machinations of Callaghan and his Treasury officials, whose deflationary emphasis destroyed his hopes for growth. Many historians, like Brown, have blamed Harold Wilson for encouraging two different departments to run “diametrically opposed policies”.

British foreign policy after August 1966 was complicated by the fact that George Brown was Foreign Secretary. In 1968, he publicly insulted the wife of the British ambassador to France, Sir Patrick Reilly, at a dinner party at the French embassy in London, and later ended the ambassador’s career over personal differences. At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference, Brown was observed by Barbara Castle “rolling around sozzled” and complaining about his new job. Effectively Wilson had to take over foreign policy.

There is no reliable count of the number of times Brown resigned. He finally left government in 1968. He lost his seat in parliament in 1970 and accepted  a peerage in the same year. He resigned from the Labour Party in 1976 and joined the Social Democrats in 1981.  He died at the age of 70 in 1985.

Character

Roy Jenkins:” Brown was certainly not a tepid character. He had great qualities both of intellect and personality, although they were balanced by appalling faults. He drank too much, particularly for his not very strong head…. And he confounded the trouble by being also capable of violent switches of mood, even when sober. On the big issues, he was almost invariably right and pursued his conviction with persistent courage.”

Brown always resented the Oxbridge-educated intellectuals like Jenkins who dominated the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, Richard Crossman was punched by Brown in a House of Commons corridor but the diminutive Brown found himself on the floor with the burly Crossman sitting on top of him.

Brown’s resentments and begrudgeries led to his self-destructive feud with Harold Wilson, who had won one of the most brilliant Oxford Firsts in the 20th Century and defeated Brown in the 1963 leadership election after the death of Hugh Gaitskell. Tony Crosland might have been the kind of intellectual that Brown resented but Crosland preferred Brown to Harold Wilson referring to the contest between the two men for the Labour leadership as a choice between a crook and a drunk.

Although the formidable Barbara Castle thought him “emotion- intoxicated, not drunk”, she also recorded that when she had gone through a division lobby with him he had unbuttoned the back of her blouse and “grinned like a schoolboy”. Even one of his political patrons, the former Chancellor Hugh Dalton, thought that Brown was ‘very awkward, vain, sensitive and fundamentally self-seeking and unfaithful’.

Brown regularly spoke on Capital Radio about having given up alcohol always had a stiff whisky before going on air. He had two convictions for drunken driving. Brown once boasted that “Many members of parliament drink and womanise – now, I’ve never womanised. On 24 December 1982, after 45 years of marriage, Brown walked out on his long-suffering wife, Sophie, with whom he had two daughters, and set up home with his personal secretary Margaret “Maggie” Haimes, who was half his age. They had a daughter.

 

 

 

The Colonial Project- how did my family benefit from plunder?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 27 2011

Last week Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. He also referred to the publication by Juliet’s company of Marlon Ariyasinghe’s poetry collection Froteztology. I have read some of Malinda’s own poetry and, on the strength of that, I respect his judgement enough to want to read Marlon’s work. I am working on my own poetry collection with the provisional title of The Toxicity of Taxonomy. My running themes are the poisonous nature of stereotyping, nationalism and racism and how the inexorable tides of imperialism and other isms drown helpless little people. I’m looking for a publisher, Juliet!

Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.

I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago, Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle – Rajpal’s articles about the gay mafia in the UNP reminded me of Edward’s court) and later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.

Sam1

I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.

Sam2

As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.

Sam3

Imperial service certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.

 

My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.

My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.

My father made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.

da1

Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university. Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.

When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.

No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex  inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’

Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.

The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.

I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals” and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.

 

HoaxEye

A fake image is worth zero words

Poet's Corner

Poems, poets, poetry, writing, poetry challenges

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Casual, But Smart

Pop Culture From An Old Soul

PN Review Blog

‘The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ - Simon Armitage

The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

Spreading resources for potential living.