Reflections on the first half of 2020 and other pandemic axioms.
One of my favourite memes for 2020 is Marty and Doc Brown standing beside the crashed DeLorean with Doc telling Marty he shouldn’t have set it for 2020. My other one is the sign outside the bookshop saying 2020 written by Stephen King and directed by Quentin Tarentino. I have to say, when I was standing in Strade Eugen Doga taking a photo of the beautiful arch of 2020 looking down the hill, with small children and their families running around at the start of January, I would have ever imagined these last 6 months. I am sitting in my garden cabin study in the suburbs of north Bristol, with the wind blowing but the sun shining, on a calm Sunday afternoon wondering what the second half of the year will bring as we enter July next week.
It seems quite appropriate to be quoting the late 19th century/early 20th century revolutionary, Vladimir Ilylich Ulyanov at this time. He famously said:
There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.
If we only took the experience of the global pandemic, we would be experiencing what he had in mind, but with the many other events of the last 6 months, it is difficult to know where even to start.
A few Sundays ago, my adoptive home city of Bristol made headlines around the World and sparked an intense historical debate about how we remember history. At the end of an emotional, but peaceful protest related to the Black Lives Matter movement, a prominent and much debated statue of the late 17th century colonial slave trader, Edward Colston, was pulled from its plinth and unceremoniously rolled down St Augustine’s Parade, through the heart of the medieval city and dumped off Pero’s bridge into the docks. It is worth noting the bridge is named for Pero Jones, a slave to an 18th century Bristol plantation owner and sugar trader.
These events in Bristol were sparked by a wave of similar action across the USA this summer. Black Lives Matters protesters have been on the streets of American towns and cities making their voices heard, as their parents and grandparents did in the Civil Rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s, where they forged Johnson’s “Great Society” as a reality. Watching the killing of George Floyd, a black American, as a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for over 8 minutes while George pled “I can’t breathe”, has shocked and galvanised the World, especially in the US and UK, reminding everyone that history is never really in the dim and dusty past.
In response to the counter voices claiming the protestors in Bristol were attempting to eradicate history, another, more eminent adopted son of Bristol, the historian Dr David Olusoga, responded in the media and on social media, that we do not learn our history from mere statues. Colston’s statue has now been fished out of the docks and it seems that with the paint and BLM signs intact as a new point of reference in the city’s history, it will finally end up in the Bristol Museum, the M Shed. Here, the statue of Colston, will be exhibited with contextualisation so that children and future generations may be able to understand Colston’s role in both slavery and the fabric of our city. In this way, we will all gain a more accurate perspective on the way the prosperity of this city was, in large part, built on the profits of slavery, rather than stroll past his statue, or, as a local school named in his honour did until very recently, throw flowers at his feet on their founders day. Within a matter of days, the name Colston was being removed from lots of building and street names in the city in much the same way as we now see this same process happening to confederate monuments, schools and public buildings in the USA. This is in stark contrast to when “The Lost Cause” was able to assert its grip on perceived and received history at the height of Jim Crow. Even the Mississippi state legislature has finally voted to remove the Confederacy from the corner of its state flag.
The events in Bristol and further afield have opened up a very fierce debate – statues of establishment figures such as Cecil Rhodes and Clive of India; pillars of the Empire and key empire builders for the British, were next to be re-examined and will be taken down. The problem with the way in which we debate in the 2020s, whether in our schools, online or in the streets, is that there seems to be no safe space to debate, hold dialogue or even agree to disagree. There are many things to say about the events of a balmy Sunday in June where the impromptu removal of a statue has taught people more about the injustices of slavery and the ongoing struggle black people still have for equality in the UK and the USA, in a few hours, than they have learnt through other means in a lifetime.
It has brought into question the whole issue of what we are teaching in schools about our own history. There used to be a wonderful museum to the British Empire and Commonwealth in Bristol at Temple Meads, unfortunately now gone. As a former Head of History at one of the largest schools in Bristol, my team used to take students there so they could learn this part of our so called “Island story” and gain a wider perspective of our past and its impact on our present, rather than the post Brexit mangled version of “Global Britain”, which hardly shows the UK in its “Finest Hour” in the chaos of the British response to the crisis.
The American, philosopher and writer, George Santayana, said “A person’s feet should be planted in their country, but their eyes should survey the World”. Despite the claim we are living in a fragile globalised World, the global reality of BLM, Covid19 and Siberia experiencing record heat waves in the Tundra show that our interconnectedness and our humanity far outweigh the inward, narrow nationalist retreating inward even further. I couldn’t help but think of the Bristol crowd rolling old Colston ignominiously along the streets to the dock, where they would have to have passed another Bristol statue of the philosopher and late 18th century MP for Bristol, Edmund Burke. Most know his famous lines about the French Revolution spiralling out of control and Bourbon heads being removed and not just statues in The Terror when he said; “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.” A quote used by many a student of history reflecting on the Totalitarianism of the 1930s. I also found myself questioning the logic of the crowd not turning a few yards back to College Green and taking on the very imperial statue of Victoria on her plinth or at the top of Park Street for her son Edward VII. But they didn’t and the last word goes to Shelley on statues:
OZYMANDIAS of EGYPT
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Not quite. It may be that Anglo-American societies are finally facing up to issues from their histories, that other societies have already had to similarly and painfully confront.
I have been working a lot with colleagues from India these last few months speaking at global online conferences sharing ideas about the ways in which schools and communities are responding to the crisis, particularly around plans to return safely and unlock the lockdown. The pandemic axiom has been used a lot about the different approaches and stages schools communities and societies are at, especially contrasting the response in countries like New Zealand, as we head for over 10 million cases worldwide, including more than 100k deaths in the US and over 43k deaths in the UK.
During these exchanges, my good friend and colleague, Dr Arup Mukhopadhyay reminded me what happened when the sun finally set on the Raj in 1947 to all the statue paraphernalia of former Governors, Viceroys, Sepoy Generals, East India Company officials, carpetbaggers, snake oil salesmen, adventurers and their like. Most were “placed” in Coronation Park, in a corner of New Delhi as the next chapter in India’s history unfolded as a new, independent nation taking its place as the World’s largest democracy.
All of which brings me neatly to Chisinau and Moldova, struggling in the heatwave, the floods and a spike in cases as society unlocks. My colleagues have been working very hard throughout June, as together we ensure we finish off the academic year, run the summer school, the new Heritage Language Academy, sign in our new families for the next academic year and we prepare for returning to school. We know it won’t exactly be “business as usual”, but we will continue with meaningful education and certainty, placing physical distancing measures in school for the time being, based on successful models already operating in countries such as Denmark. I think we are all ready for the return of physical school and having spoken virtually at the summer conference for META on Monday and then at Eton College for the British Council on Tuesday, I long for the days when we can talk face to face with colleagues over a coffee, or even something stronger as we did just 4 months ago in London and in Cairo.
Chisinau and Moldova marked 30 years this summer since the country declared itself sovereign, changing the flag and the coat of arms that would eventually lead to full independence from the defunct USSR in 1991. I live in Chisinau, a stone’s throw from Pushkin Street and the main thoroughfare that is now named after the 15th century king, Stefan Cel Mare, no longer for the man of previous decades who I quoted earlier, Lenin. The street that crosses mine at the bottom is one of the most amazing tree lined streets you will see and it reflects the wonderful greenery of Chisinau (not Kishinev) and is called 31st Aug 1989 street. It commemorates the official return of the Latin alphabet and Romanian. Statues have gone and been replaced with other figures, streets and buildings renamed, contentious monuments and anniversaries, some events and festivals have come and gone whilst others remain. You only have to look across Eastern Europe and the post Soviet World to see what has been happening in these societies as they have grappled with their conflicting histories and tried to move forward, so the next generations can live more peacefully and more prosperously. From that perspective, we are definitely all in the same storm and boat as a global society.
I have been encouraging my daughters during this lockdown to spend less time on Fortnite and their screens in general and to write letters to family in Shropshire and mid Wales. There is still something incredible about a handwritten letter or a card that a digital version or Whatsapp message can never replace. It was, therefore, a wonderful surprise to have not only a letter, but also a gift from a former student of mine last week which arrived completely out of the blue. Zoe was a brilliant student of history and a very calm presence in a class I took responsibility for as their tutor when they were 15-16. Now in her 30s, married to a good Russian man and with a lovely child, they had been teaching in Samara and she knew my love of Moldova, Eastern Europe and Russia. The gift was a book. A book about the wonderful letters a middle aged English bookseller and his wife sent to a family in Moldova in the early 1970s as part of an Amnesty International campaign to ensure prisoners of conscience were not forgotten, especially their families. A young mother and her child came home from a long journey to visit her husband and the girl’s father, exhausted. Without hope for the future, having just come from an awful prison they found a card from England. I read the opening lines and cried tears, before devouring the amazing true story in a day. It has been a long time since I have put my phone down on a weekend from work and read like this and it did me a power of good. More importantly, it reminded me of the real history and hope in every society that lies in these types of stories and experiences. The book is called “From Newbury with Love. Letters of friendship from across the Iron Curtain”. Even at the height of the Cold War, despite all the hatred and propaganda, people found there was much more that united them as humanity, than divided them. I went back to the words of another figure from the Cold War era, Vaclav Havel and I quoted his words in January in my blog full of hope for the 2020s. Well, I am still full of hope, I work in education after all. Hope is hard to avoid and keep out when you have the futures of young people in your hands. My hope for the second half of 2020 and still for the decade is that we find more of Havel’s “power of powerless”. It changes a lot more than just old statues.