It can safely be said that the last three years have not been fruitful ones in the history of the United Kingdom. Politically speaking, the 2016 referendum has opened a political hellmouth straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a seemingly endless procession of charlatans, mediocrities and outright monstrosities haunts the polis with messages that are alternatively idiotic, jingoistic, dishonest, preposterous, or downright sinister. Mark Francois, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab, Andrea Jenkins, Jacob Rees-Mogg — all these demons parade through our TV screens, proposing deals that cannot be implemented, promising futures that cannot be delivered in the way they say they can, ignoring evidence to the contrary and denouncing their opponents as ‘traitors’ or ‘Remoaners’, sabotaging plans that have already been well and truly sabotaged by the gulf between expectation and reality.
Stuck in this little shop of horrors, it would be comforting to find some consolation in the ongoing implosion of the Tory Party, which has been inflicting this nightmare — and so many others — on the nation in the first place. Punished in the recent local and European elections, the Tory Party, once one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe, has been shattered by its obsession with Europe, an obsession it has chosen to inflict on the whole country. Its zombie government staggers on, visionless and ineffectual, crushed by its own incompetence and a Brexit process that has revealed it to be fatally out of its depth.
The schadenfreude and genuine pleasure at this outcome should be tempered by the awareness that the opposition is also in disarray, and that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is now set to play a kingmaking role in national elections, according to a succession of polls. According to the Telegraph, Tory donors are now in secret negotiations with Farage’s organisation — calling it a ‘party’ is somewhat overstating it — with a view to an electoral pact in any forthcoming general election.
If this pact takes place, and there is nothing to suggest that it won’t, then we may end up with a Brexit Party-Tory coalition government with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and Nigel Farage in some kind of ministerial position. In the short term it now seems almost certain that the Tory Party will make Boris Johnson the next Prime Minister. For Johnson, this has been the whole point of his political career, but it is very bad news for anyone who would like to prevent our deepening slide into gutter politics.
If Farage is an ideological fanatic, Johnson’s overwhelming passion is himself. Narcissistic, opportunistic, incompetent, shallow, devoid of loyalty or decency, he has wanted the Big Job for a long time, and he has done everything possible to get it.
It’s true that not all Tories like him. Max Hastings, Matthew Parris, and Ken Clarke have all made it clear in no uncertain terms that they aren’t fans, and there are others who feel the same. But there are also many Tory MPs who will simply go with whoever they believe can save their careers and ‘deliver’ Brexit in the process. For those who do like him, and there are many, Johnson exudes the ‘optimism’ and ‘positivity’ that they feel have been missing in a Brexit process gone sour. As Alison Pearson gushed in the Telegraph last week, ‘when Boris Johnson enters the room, the molecules rearrange.’ She was probably not thinking of curdled milk.
To those who regard Johnson as a political fun-boy, that cheekie-chappie grin and the retro-imperial mood music are everything. It doesn’t matter that their hero has made racist comments about ‘piccaninies’, mocked Muslim women and homosexuals, or had a laugh about dead bodies in Libya. That’s just politically-incorrect, plain-speaking ‘Boris.’ These fans won’t be bothered that their hero’s characteristic lack of detail helped get Nazanin Zhagari-Radcliffe a longer prison sentence. Or that he consistently conspired against Theresa May, and then resigned from her government in protest at a Brexit deal that he had already agreed to, simply because David Davis did it first and Johnson didn’t want to be upstaged as a potential successor to May.
These admirers certainly won’t be bothered that Johnson lied about £350 million for ‘our’ NHS. Most of them won’t pause to wonder why both Trump and Steve Bannon like Johnson, and those who do will probably think this is a good thing. Nor will they care about the money that Johnson threw away on various vanity projects when London mayor, or the water cannons that were, and could, never be deployed, or the fire stations that he closed down. They just want Brexit and they want it hard — but they also want to feel good about it.
Johnson knows his audience. In his leadership launch speech last month, he spoke of the ‘guts and determination’ needed to make Brexit happen. Like Elvis, he just can’t help believing, and in Brexitland, belief and emotion are everything — the only way to close the persistent gap between fantasy and reality. When Johnson argues that only by preparing for No Deal can we make the EU do what we want, they believe him. When he promises to ‘unite the country’, some of them believe that too. Because unlike Dominic Raab, a politician whose gimlet-eyed ambition is clear in every position that he adopts, Johnson speaks of wider more romantic possibilities, with a throwaway patina of Etonian learning that too many people take for intellectual gravitas.
When he talks of ‘Global Britain’, he evokes a lost world of pith-helmeted district commissioners, gallant privateers, gunboats and proxy ‘native’ rulers in turbans or lion skins gathered round Queen Victoria’s skirts. He makes jokes, drops in a bit of Latin, and oozes the sense of national entitlement that is the very essence of the Brexit dream.
It’s true that Johnson lies — a lot — but his fans won’t care about that either. In our current ‘post-truth’ political world, a propensity for unrepentant lying is not an obstacle to power, and may even smooth the way to it. Johnson’s minders have played a clever game by keeping their man quiet these last few weeks. They know that whenever he opens his mouth he is likely to say something — such as ‘fuck business’ — that will reveal his glib opportunism, his inattention to detail, and his total unfitness for office.
Instead, they’ve cut his hair and got him to make various emollient One Nation Tory-like pronouncements to win over the doubters. For the time being, Johnson’s team have reduced him to an absent presence, a political hologram in whom his admirers can see the Johnson they believe him to be, while the doubters can be induced to rethink their doubts. They know that Johnson is all performance, and that public appearances are likely to reveal the essential hollowness at the core of his delusions of grandeur.
Such delusions are the perfect antidote to a radicalised Tea Party Conservativism that has abandoned pragmatism, common sense and any sense of the national interest. Johnson is also the perfect symbol of a British governing class that no longer knows how to govern, whose reputation for non-partisan efficiency has collapsed like so much else. On one hand, there is a kind of satisfying dramatic irony in Johnson’s narrative arc that the creators of Alan B’stard would have envied: the amoral chancer who wrecks his own country in order to get his country to love him as much as he loves himself. The mendacious journalist whose lies during the 1990s did so much to turn his own party against the EU leading a diminished and divided nation into ‘negotiations’ that the EU have already said cannot take place.
So, it is very likely that Johnson will get the job. Whether he can keep it is another matter. Johnson may talk of ‘guts’ and ‘determination’ and bluster on about ‘max fac’ solutions to the Irish border, but in the end, as May has already found out, there will come a point when the bluster, the bravado — and the optimism — will collide with reality.
Yesterday, in his latest Telegraph column, Johnson lamented the fact that ‘rural areas’ in the UK don’t get good Broadband, observing ‘There are whole towns in Britain where people are still being driven wild with frustration as they stare at the slowly revolving pizza wheel of doom.’
Many others will also be staring at that pizza wheel, and cursing the party that is now poised to inflict this dangerous and reckless chancer on a country that he has almost no prospect of uniting, and will only divide still further.
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How, people asked, could those who ignored residents’ complaints before the fire, who signed off on the cladding which — as was immediately clear — helped it to spread so fatally, and who were nowhere to be seen in the immediate aftermath, have legitimacy in the neighbourhood?
Within days, the rupture between locals and the authorities led activists to declare this corner of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea a ‘people’s republic’, and the streets around the charred tower an ‘autonomous zone’.
As the months passed, calls for self-rule faded. There were signs though, that the advance of ‘super-gentrification’ in the borough, with London’s greatest extremes of income inequality, was being checked.
Locals took over empty buildings. They covered public spaces in painted hearts and makeshift memorials; they set up art therapy, gardening and childcare projects. The Tory-led council was forced to abandon its plan of leasing the local library to a £19,000-a-year private prep school, and to apologise for its role in the intended sale of a further education college. A new affordable housing policy was proposed to prevent Kensington “becoming a borough only for the rich”.
The authorities — so vulnerable in Grenfell’s wake — have reasserted themselves. At the same time, the Public Inquiry into the fire is mired in delay, with the judge leading it yet to make a single recommendation on fire safety — despite his experts warning that “urgent and very far-reaching reform” is needed. What’s more, no charges are expected in the ongoing criminal investigation before 2021.
Yet it is the survivors and bereaved who are creating the disaster’s most tangible legacies. And in their quest for justice, they’re mirroring the response to earlier traumas in the same area.
Haunted by things that no longer exist
Tom Vague, North Kensington’s unofficial historian and a walking repository of tales from Notting Hill in bygone days, often speaks of the district’s ‘psychogeography’: how its terrain, and the things that happened there in the past, somehow vibrate their influence in the neighbourhood into the present.
Walking the streets of North Kensington, where I’ve lived more than half my life, there are times when I think this is nothing more than perception. As recently as the mid-19th century, much of the area was farmland. In 200 years, the streets and buildings might be equally unrecognisable: they’re impermanent, like the lives which pass through them.
There are other times though, when I can feel — or at least imagine — the presence of those who came before; when Notting Hill’s history seems to seep through its architecture and landscape, like the barely visible traces of the decades-old painted advert on the wall by Ladbroke Grove tube station.
The 14th day of every month is one of those moments: when thousands walk silently up Ladbroke Grove, forcing traffic on the busy main artery to a halt, their banners demanding justice for Grenfell’s 72 dead.
Among them are at least a handful who are aware of the procession that headed silently north up the same road 60 years ago.
Back then, the crowd, stretching back half a mile and numbering around 1,000 people, was made up of black and white, young and old, and was also seeking justice and catharsis: for the unprovoked murder of a black man in the area three weeks before.
At around midnight on May 17, 1959, Kelso Cochrane, a quiet 32-year-old carpenter from Antigua, was attacked by a gang of white youths on the corner of Southam Street, in the derelict northern fringes of the borough. One of the assailants drove a knife deep into the main chamber of his heart.
Kelso’s murder came eight months after the Notting Hill riots, among the worst outbreaks of racial violence in Britain in the last century. The murder of a black man in the same district threatened greater disturbances, and its news reverberated around the world. “The savage murder was premeditated. There is no rest on London these days,” said Radio Moscow.
Despite the killer’s identity being the “worst kept secret in Notting Hill”, no one was ever charged for the crime. For many, this was a brutal symbol of the different values the law placed on black and white lives.
Yet rather than triggering more violence, Kelso Cochrane’s murder brought people together. “His death,” says the blue plaque just across the road from where he was ambushed, “outraged and unified the community, leading to the lasting cosmopolitan tradition in North Kensington.”
“Something stirred in people,” says the local sociologist and documentary film-maker, Colin Prescod. “If you look at the pictures of Kelso’s funeral, you see a community which is shamed by this racist murder. After his death there was a resistance: where people were trying to change the social and political culture in which they lived.”
Prescod arrived in North Kensington from Trinidad as a 13-year-old, just before the August 1958 riots. His mother, Pearl, who became the first black actress to appear at the new National Theatre at the Old Vic, was at the vanguard of creating the political and social change he speaks of; along with the likes of Amy Ashwood Garvey (the ex-wife of the Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey), and Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian-born communist who was jailed in America, and then deported, during the McCarthy witch-hunts.
Out of the embers of the riots and Kelso’s murder, they and others created a form of ‘social healing’: in concrete terms, this included starting the forerunner to the Notting Hill carnival (today a global symbol of multi-culturalism), and transforming North Kensington from an area synonymous with racial hatred into one which for decades was seen as a cultural melting pot, where different races and classes cohabited in ways unfamiliar in other parts of London.
There was also national change: Jones and others used the violence in Notting Hill sixty years ago to help force anti-racism on to the mainstream political agenda, which eventually led to the UK’s first Race Relations Act in 1965.
History of resistance
The parallels between the death of one man in North Kensington 60 years ago, and those of 72 people there in totally different circumstances in June 2017 should not be overstretched – despite both events exposing stark truths about the Britain of their day. The comparison, rather, is how people responded to what happened, and the change which flowed from it.
In the case of Grenfell, it’s the survivors and bereaved in particular, who are leading the change.
Grenfell United was formed by homeless and deeply traumatised survivors soon after the fire. The group now includes most of those who survived the tragedy, as well as hundreds of bereaved relatives.
At first they fought for medical support and accommodation. Since then, they’ve battled for “justice and accountability and to honour the memory of those who died”. They’ve won significant victories – though not the war – in their campaign to ensure that no-one else in the country lives or works in high-rise death traps; they also recently won their fight for the Grenfell inquiry to have a more representative panel. More broadly, they are also working to end the prejudice against social housing tenants.
Yet in North Kensington itself, Grenfell’s lasting impact remains unclear.
The vast concentration of grief among so many remains, as does the question which was asked in the area as the horror unfolded two years ago: how can those who failed residents so catastrophically still be part of the structures that govern their lives?
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Fanon: hier, aujourd’hui
Directed by Hassan Mezine
87 minutes – 2018
“Fanon: Hier, Aujourd’hui” (Fanon: Yesterday, Today), the debut documentary film by Hassane Mezine, is a remarkable testament to the life and legacy of Frantz Fanon, the great Martinican-born thinker, philosopher and psychiatrist. The 87-minute groundbreaking feature sheds a welcome new light on the spectre of Fanon’s work and teachings, still a revolutionaries’ bible and a lifeline for anyone engaged in the quest for decolonisation.
In this film, Mezine, who previously worked alongside the indomitable anti-colonial film-director René Vautier, methodically and meticulously explores the timelessness and urgent relevance of Fanon today, following his story from the early engagement against Nazism, to his ultimate fight against colonialism. Mezine delivers an intellectual yet poignant testimony of Fanon’s utter brilliance, in a gripping two-parter: Yesterday and Today.
The project started with Mezine’s discovery of rare interview footage of Abdelhamid Mehri, a former minister in the (pre-independence) Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria. “A friend of mine had filmed the interview,” Mezine explains, “in which [Mehri] talks about Fanon and his pivotal role in the Algerian revolution”. The interview prompted Mezine to embark on a journey that would take him three years, and a fair bit of travelling, in pursuit of Fanon’s legacy.
Mezine marshals an impressive collection of people who knew Fanon and worked alongside him during his years of revolutionary struggle in Algeria, Tunis, Mali and Europe. He speaks to Fanon’s son, Olivier, as well as to Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, Fanon’s assistant during his days at the neuro-psychiatric hospital in Tunis and author of “Sous la dictée de Fanon,” a book about her experience. There are many others voices, principally comrades and colleagues including Raphael Confiant, the Martinican author of “Frantz Fanon: “L’insurrection de l’âme: Frantz Fanon, vie et mort du guerrier-silex”.
Soon after the launch of the Algerian revolution, on November 1st, 1954, Fanon joined the ranks of the FLN (National Liberation Front). For him, the then-prevailing state of affairs, of oppression and injustice, made it impossible not to choose a side. He chose to fight injustice, and viewed the revolutionary insurrection in Algeria as the logical consequence of an attempt to oppress, decerebralise and alienate an entire people. As such, he viewed Algeria’s struggle for independence as a test-case for the rest of Africa.
A staunch defender of democracy and human rights, Fanon was first and foremost a humanist who advocated via his teachings and writings the intrinsic consequences of establishing a social movement for the decolonisation of both individuals and people through the analysis of the dehumanising effects of colonisation upon colonised subjects and communities. His most eminent publications include Black Skin, White masks, published in 1952, and The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, days before his untimely death. Fanon did not live to see an independent Algeria; he died of Leukaemia on December 6th, 1961, at the age of 36, in a hospital near Washington, DC. His body was later repatriated to Algeria, as per his wishes, where he rests today.
The world has changed a great deal since 1962, not least with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the soviet Union. Mezine shows that today, more so than Yesterday, Fanon remains as relevant as ever, and that his theories on alienation and decolonisation are profoundly far reaching, as amply demonstrated during Mezine’s odyssey journeying across the US, Portugal, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, France, Martinique and Palestine.
Fanon’s revolutionary and post-colonial theories still resonate today, not only in the ex-colonies where the deep scars and ongoing violence of colonialism, neo-colonialism, dictatorship, alienation, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, infrastructural decay, inter-ethnic enmity and religious intolerance constitute a daily struggle, but also in the West, where these same forces and dynamics drive the global imperialist agenda of enriching the 1% at the expense of the majority.
Mezine crucially touches on the question of post-independence national bourgeoisie(s), who have come to internalise and assimilate colonialist thought, engendering amongst many consequences a selective humanism that denies the fundamental elements of the humanity of communities, relegating them to the status of anomalies. However, perhaps the most thought-provoking, piercing quote here comes from Houria Bouteldja’s, a French-Algerian activist and author, on the ever illusionary and mutating imperialism, “We are the post-colonial subjects of Europe; we are the South in the North.”
Mezine’s groundbreaking film, much like Fanon’s body of work, has since reached audiences far and wide, with screenings taking place in Algeria, Martinique, Tunisia, France, Belgium, Spain, Guadeloupe, and the UK. In a world where reading Fanon remains a revolutionary act, and where the Fanonian oeuvre is often ignored or sidelined — viewed as simply a dissident ideology that calls for violence against the oppressor — the very existence of this film constitutes a significant contribution to the unfinished project that is the decolonisation and de-racialisation of society, and the world.
“Fanon: Hier, Aujourd’hui” is back on the screen in London next week, on Monday 10th June, at the Curzon Goldsmiths University in London. Further screenings are scheduled later this year in South Africa, Portugal, Mexico, Columbia, Canada and the US. For a full list of screenings, and further updates, visit the film’s official page.
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