The Green Shoots of Spring

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

 – Marcus Tullius Cicero, Epistulae AD Familiares Vol. 2 47-43 BC

One of the best ways of trying to keep sane, calm and upbeat in these very difficult and challenging times is spending time outside, exercising and…gardening. After almost five months of lockdown, I can write about other pressing issues as the UK opens up on retail, leisure, cultural centres, libraries etc.   However, it will be a missed opportunity to now see the beautiful displays and sense of change that comes with the changing of the season. Without a doubt the last winter has been one of the most difficult in our lifetime which the cold spell compounded with restrictions to group festive celebrations, New Year’s Eve parties, carnival get-together and birthday celebrations.  The green shoots of spring bring us new hope of a coronavirus that is under control here (for now) and gaining some more freedom to spend time outside to enjoy the coming spring and summer seasons. 

According to Mintel report on Hobbies and Interest February 2021, the lack of commuting and space time as the lockdown took over, meant that there is more time for hobbies such as “Baking, Handicrafts, Gardening and Home Improvements”. There was also a spike on Google Trends for people researching for these topics. We also have surplus time to spend on our hobbies and exercise due to the lack of commuting time. Gardens are great places to find peace, tranquility and mindfulness.

“The power of hobbies to improve mental wellbeing is set to drive growth throughout 2020. As mental health continues to be in the spotlight, hobby operators that position their services and products as beneficial in this respect stand to benefit.”

(Mintel Hobbies and Interests – UK, February 2020)

Garden Centre were some of the shops that remained open most of the last few months were garden centres and as soon as the weather was a bit better – I went to two of my favourites in my vicinity. I spent time looking at acid compost that I needed for a Magnolia plant present I received.  I always end up spending more money than I intended when I visit that garden centre as it has some amazing plants that I do know find in the commercial garden centre.  The centre is called Northfields and has been going for a number of years and seems to have some great photos of its’ horticultural historical business.  It was really busy last summer at the peak of spring reopening in the pandemic! I plan to go back in the next few weeks to find some plants on my wish-list. So fingers crossed.

I was able to germinate some courgette seeds and I hope to plant them in the ground in the next few weeks.  I also put in some herbs and lavender plants this month. There are some local friends who seems to have access to allotments.  There photos of their progress and the ‘fruits of their labour’ (pardon the pun!) on social media is always great and inspiring to see. This allotment hobby is not a programme that happens in other countries, but our Italian cousins in Rome had an allotment with lots of impressive and delicious Mediterranean vegetables, fruits and herbs.  I used to enjoy the visit there when we went a few years ago.  Italians also process and bottle their tomatoes into ‘passata’ from the summer for next year ahead.  My mother-in-law was also doing this in Bedford up until a decade ago.  I also saw on social media that my Trinidadian-Canadian friend who is married to an Italian-Canadian doing this same tomato processing recently. I can only imagine the great flavours of the sauces they make! There must be something special about making your own vegetables but I don’t seem to have much luck as yet with tomatoes.

Over the years I have bought a few gardening books and love looking at photos in books and magazines.  About 20-25 years ago, there was a great interest in gardening design and make-over TV programmes.  It still seems to be some during daytime TV and I tend to catch up on ‘Gardens World’ on BBC iPlayer if I can’t look at it live.  It does make me feel happy to see the plants and stories from other gardeners.  The format also shows other members if the public in their gardens and sharing their tips with us.  I love the diversity of the gardens and their presenters.  I also take inspiration from some of these and can easily spend more time looking at this sort of light-hearted shows.  I may also splash out in a few gardening magazines soon.

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

– Aubrey Hepburn

Due to traffic-calming and environmental improvement measures in my neighbourhood, there have also been continued guerrilla gardening in my community to help with these issues.  In our local neighbourhood, some of my neighbours are also planning a Chelsea Fringe this June as a spin-off from the Chelsea Flower Show.  And guess what? …I have never been to a Chelsea Flower Show even though I used to hear about it on the BBC World Service when I lived in Trinidad. Trinidadian horticulturalists do take part and sometimes win at the Chelsea Flower show too!

I have noticed that there are lot more plant and gift shops in my high street and hear that the twenty-somethings are buying more plants.  There are definitely more plants in the shops in my local areas, and flower retailing were busy for Valentine’s Day and Mothering Sunday in London despite the lockdown.  I received a few flower bouquets as presents from friends in March and it was nice to receive them even though we could not meet.  Getting flowers by post is also something that is new to me. Bloom and Wild is a popular brand that is used for home deliveries.  Flowers are one of the treats I have been buying myself in the last year as I am home to enjoy them!

Horticulture businesses are generally doing well in the pandemic as most people are spending the time in the garden spaces that they have. Garden shops are one of the main retailers that we can still pursue at our leisure without causing too much of a commotion.  There is also the birth of the new type of business – the Lockdown Gardener called Doorstep Gardener, whereby garden centres were initially closed and persons were buying plants and seeds online.  My local supermarket was the only place where I could buy plants and seeds at the beginning of the first strict pandemic lockdown but it was interesting to see the innovations online as well as in-store evolutions. There is also Pleydell Smithyman who offered a drive through ‘click and collect’ for plants.

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body but the soul

– Alfred Austin

The environment and outdoor spaces are a major part of our wellbeing and mental health factors.  I have really enjoyed my local walks in residential areas of my neighbourhood, as well as venturing to some of the greener spaces. You can be assured that you will have lots of space to social distance with the added benefit of seeing beautiful nature.  There is also evidence that we enjoy green spaces, meeting friends and family outdoor and use them as places for relaxation.  For those in urban areas, the pandemic has been bitter sweet.  We are able to enjoy a quieter city but if you lack access to green spaces at home, the parks and communal spaces have been really busy during this lockdown period.  Apparently, there are 10% of Londoners who have moved to the rural areas as there are more opportunities to work from home with less commuting time and costs.  This BBC article ‘How Covid have changed where we want to live in March 2021 explains some of the reasons why Covid-19 have impacted on property sales and moves out to the country.

Last week, I also went outside of my local area for the first time since December to visit Hatfield House Garden, which was about 50 minutes away from my home.  It was reasonably priced for the garden visit and I have been meaning to visit even thought I have driven through Hatfield hundreds of times on my way to Bedford. Hatfield House Garden was the childhood home of Elizabeth I of England and apparently, she received the news of her accession to the throne whilst reading a book under an old oak tree.  It was a lovely woodland and ornate garden, as well as a show of vintage cars on display.  The walk in the woodlands, the sundial and hew hedges were interesting to see. The Old Palace is still used as a function hall and it was fabulous to see it being used for Indian weddings. 

On our walk at Hatfield House, we actually bumped into 88-year-old twin sisters who were friendly and spoke to us on our walk.  They conveyed their love of walking in the woodland park and local gardens to find what was interesting to watch and talk about.  They were really special and sweet to share this with us as it is exactly what I do too! We wished each other a good day and safe journey to our homes.

I am looking forward to visiting some more outdoor spaces as the weather gets better such as Beth Chatto’s House in Colchester. When I am able to, I am hoping to visit Trinidad again to see family but, in the meantime, visiting places of relaxation and natural beauty are some of the few pleasures I am looking forward too and the green shoots of Spring seem to symbolise so much hope.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.

– Luther Burbank.

#ChoosetoChallenge – Celebrating the 110th International Women’s Day

It is exactly 10 years since I first celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) for the first time, and it feels right to write about the progress, changes and challenges that women are facing.  The theme for this year’s IWD on 8th March is #ChoosetoChallenge, which spans the whole month of March for Women’s History Month. I will look at some of the areas that affect women and my views on the topics as gender conversations have certainly moved on with more fluid and open discussions.  Non-binary gender identities, gender pay gaps, gender bias, feminist protests and leadership roles are some of the topics that are being pushed up the agenda and discussed in many (not all) countries to challenge the status quo and act as “agents of change”.  Like with many aspects of life, there are some countries that are performing better than others and new generations are demanding more equality and inclusivity – we can’t run away from this.  What we can do is learn from each other, support causes that we care about that affect women…and lift each other up in what is a difficult era in a pandemic.

Some of the main areas where I feel we have made progress over the last few years are in our openness to discuss in greater details inequalities in the workplace, health information, body positive images in the media (think Lizzo!), learning about key women heroines and achievements, finding places where we can network and most importantly, amplifying our voice on feminist issues. 

There are stories of the feminist movement of women rights who had led the way in the past, and they will always be great for inspiring new generations of girls and women.  I certainly didn’t know all feminist over time but some of characters that I have discovered on the last ten years – Ada Lovelace, Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Tubman, Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker, Mary W. Jackson, Claudia Jones, Manuela Saenz and many many more!  The access to information on the internet and social media have made their struggles, achievements and stories celebrated with new energy and creativity. 

At university, I completed a module on women’s right from the industrial age to 1990s and therefore learnt about the suffragette movement with admiration for figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett and other women who fought for the vote. It was great to actually do a tour of Westminster a few years ago where the struggles and battles they won were highlight in the living recollection in the space where their hardships and successes were made collectively to give us the vote.  This was obviously an international achievement with New Zealand as the first self-governing country to give women the vote in 1893. We mustn’t take this hard-won right for granted. I still don’t know a lot of great women but it seems the topic is covered in education in schools now, and this generation of girls and young women are able to freely aspire for greater equality, and continue to push and challenge for changes that will affect them in their lives.

The struggles are real still in many parts of the work – education and access to work are some of the basic rights that women have to still fight for in the 21st century – the UN facts and figures women states: “women make up two thirds of the world’s illiterate people”.  There are other challenges such as poverty, work, health and getting into leadership roles which are specific to locations, but generally we still have a way to go. Low literacy and education levels really makes me sad when I hear that some women don’t get the basic right to education.  My parents allowed me to leave a happy home to come to study in a foreign land when I was 18 years – because they believed in me.  I will be forever grateful for their support and help they showed me by financing my studies here. I know that this was NOT a privilege.  I haven’t had free university education – a privilege that many of my university friends may have took for granted 30 years ago. It was difficult and I didn’t see my family for four years, but at least it gave me the ability to support myself and follow some of my teenage dreams.  There is this great graph below by Statista which shows the top 10 countries which have full equal rights for women.

Source: Statista

Not all girls or young women have this option to this day.  Adult learning is possible (plus you never really stop learning), but there are still countries where the cost of education is too high, accessibility and social structures are barriers too.  The cost of higher education in the UK is so high currently that I am deterred to further my studies until I am more financially secure.  One reason I pro-actively keep up my Continued Professional Development (CPD) is because I work in a professional field that never stops serving, changing and develops with technology.  I wish the governments and organisations would value this industry so that we are not at a disadvantaged professionally.  Generally, there are less negative gender equality issues in my professional field as there are more women who work in this area, but men in the sector are usually paid more, and get the top leadership roles. 

“Companies that overlook half of the world’s population overlook half of the world’s talent. To compete effectively, we need to reflect the diversity of the world in which we, and our clients, live and work.” Sheila Penrose Fotolia. Chair of the Board Jones Lang LaSalle

According to this review by Hampton Alexander on the FTSE 350 companies, 33% of women are on UK board leadership roles. In other sectors, the glass ceilings have been smashed but the percentage is still low. In the 2000s, I heard the term ‘old boys’ network’ for the first time but it seems change is slowly taking effect in the last few decades.  Businesses need women for diversity of thought, opportunities and for understanding their customers and stakeholders. Women offer insights and perspectives which open up new markets and ideas rather than having all-male boards.  Women also make up a large amount of the consumption and economic power of business services and products, and therefore you would be missing a new era of inclusive thought if talent and insights were not brought to your business. It is great to have diversity in business as it yields better results and cultivates innovation.  Having women in the decision-making roles also correlates to better business results according to Women on Boards

Over the years there are lots of research I have seen where it makes great sense to have structures, policies and initiatives in the workplace which foster greater support for women to progress beyond their roles and to “smash the glass ceilings”.  These may include improvement in attracting women to traditional male-dominated roles, offering better working patterns for working mothers and families, being flexible, and more defined supported routes and policy such as mentoring or training.  Giving opportunities can also one of ways that women in the workplace are not overlooked. Gender pay gaps, gender bias, greater pay transparency and inclusive policies are still work in progress. It would seem rather strange if organisations still have all-male boards in this 2020s decade, and let’s hope there are more deserving women in leadership roles and better equal representation.

It is important for leaders to communicate with their teams and understand that while the pandemic has affected everyone, it has not been the same for every employee. I think the last nine months have made certain qualities of leadership come to the fore. I think empathy is the strongest trait leaders have shown and understanding that everybody is dealing with professional stresses and strains.

Victoria Head – Legal at Football Association

One aspect where women are challenging the stereotypes and making their headway for themselves is by being entrepreneurial and starting their own businesses. Women have always been in great roles as entrepreneurs in the past, such as Madam C. J. Walker in the film ‘Self-Made’. I also recently attend a fabulous Sound Heritage workshop where I learnt of other remarkable women such as Mary Quaint, Audre Lorde and Rene Sawyer, who fought for greater rights and fairness.

As I work in the business information sector, I meet and admire women who are creating their own businesses. They are really passionate about starting up with their own ideas and visions, being their own bosses and having the freedom to follow their own paths to success. As reported by Hult International Business School, US women-owned businesses have increased by 74% over the past 20 years – 1.5 times the national average. They harness their own entrepreneurial talents and open up a world of opportunity, and in turn are in a position to hire other talented diverse persons for their teams.

Local Business Women

Sadly, I recently read that the pandemic will have a negative impact in gender pay and also entrench imbalances, as mentioned in Italy here in the FT’s Women in Business. Therefore, with high levels of inequalities and economic hardship brought on by one year in the pandemic, the next few years are going to be tough on all of us, especially women.  It has also been mentioned that the disparities for ethnic minorities are having the most negative economic and health impact with working in health and social care. Mckinsey have also reported in ‘Women in the workplace 2020’ that: ‘For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted’.

This is a clear message that all of this research is telling us – there is still a lot of work to do for greater equality, representation and diverse policies for business cultures.

Not all men discriminate against women, and some women also do not support other women. However, there are more inclusive practices in the workplace.  Women are also challenging barriers in various fields but they are generally under-represented in some sectors such as STEM, Tech, construction, emergency services, sports, etc.  The UN has created this great datagraphic which demonstrates the under-representation in all fields, and it is still very striking in the ratio between men and women, for example – directors at the Oscars, Nobel Peace prizes, chefs with Michelin three stars, etc. Our challenge is to continue to create structures, policies and supportive environment where young girls and women can fulfil their ambitions and careers. This may seem overwhelming at times but women do tend to support each other and this is the best way in actually working towards more equity for us all.

Sadly, I wanted to mentioned that this month has been a very sad time in my homeland with the murder of a young woman, Andrea Bharatt, who was making her work home in a taxi (falsely licensed when she boarded it). She was brutally murdered at the prime of her young life and leaves behind a lone parent. It is a terribly devastating story, and unfortunately there has been a high level of gender-based violence and murder in recent times in such a small country, as featured in this article by Brown Girl Magazine.  This has forced a national protest on these crimes and a call for a better justice system as a result of the fear and lack of confidence in personal safety felt by the general population in recent year.  It really is horrific – my contacts were sharing an outpouring of grief on social media and to say ‘enough is enough’!  This ‘femicide’ and other gender-based violence is prevalent in other parts of the world, such as I saw reported in Mexico and India recently. It is great to see that public displays of peaceful protest by women are still challenging for better policies, demanding personal safety, well-being services, general equality and…respect.

I wish you a great International Women’s Day month of understanding and finding out more stories and facts on women’s role in society.  I have always felt that there should be harmony with all genders and do believe that we need boys, young men and gentlemen to be our allies in understanding our roles in the world.  It could be my upbringing and because I went to an all-girls convent school! This is only the tip of the iceberg on the issues women encounter. However, I will continue to keep an eye on ideas, little tips and stories to help other women along the way. I also look forward to discovering new great female figures from the past and our present times this month. With this in mind, do stand up for and against the barriers in our way to greater equality, and remember to #ChoosetoChallenge for women everywhere.

Decolonisation – the Quiet Revolution continues

Divide et Impera – Divide and Rule.

In a professional capacity, my recent activities seem to want a more equitable world and they have similar themes around topics such as structural inequalities, patriarchy, white supremacy, anti-racism and decolonisation.  It is this reason that I feel compelled to work through some of these topics on this blog post.  The pandemic has affected many communities and more so in those that are disadvantaged, plus the anti-racism work brought about by the reaction to the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Movement protest this summer, as well as and the move to a more inclusive and equitable profession and society in general.  All these topics have definitely, and rightly so, been pushed up the agenda, discussion themes, organisational and personal missions of events and content I have consumed this month.  Collectively, we still don’t have all the equitable answers but there certainly are lots of questions, and new marginalised stories being unearthed from some communities.

A more diverse and inclusive current generation of academics and professionals are researching, working and creating new stories to make sure that imperial, colonial structures, white supremacy and racism which underpinned power and control of places and peoples, societies and communities are now being rattled, dismantled and abolished.  The most poignant discussions are not to overwhelm or dominate another culture, race, religion, place, people et cetera – it is simply to reclaim lost identities, re-balance and acknowledge that change is necessary…and happening now.  It is a quiet revolution without guns, ammunition and brutality, but one of thoughts and actions based on evidence, research, compassion, empathy, discussion, understanding and respect.

Coinciding with Black History Month, essential television viewing this month was ‘Enslaved’ which looked at the 2000000 slaves that were killed on the ocean crossing alone in the Transatlantic Slave Trade over 400 years.  Although I studied Caribbean history in secondary school in the Caribbean, I still learnt new facts about this horrible crime against humanity.  We didn’t have a documentary like this when we studied the subject in the 1980s. Therefore, it was gripping and sad seeing the visual landscape and underwater shipwrecks as evidence that these atrocities happen in human slavery, and you despair at the brutality and conditions of enslaved people in these crossings.  It was good to learn about some of the ‘trading’ stations on the African coast, slave rebellions such as the Maroons on Suriname, slave escapes from the USA to Canada, European-wide slave trade (I wasn’t aware that Danes also traded in slaves), and the African slave shipwrecks close by on the English coast around Devon

African history didn’t start with slavery. African history was interrupted by slavery.

– Enslaved TV Series 2020.

The United Kingdom played a huge part in the Transatlantic Slave Trade but is most keen to forget it.  As the recent departed US Politician John Lewis said in episode two of ‘Enslaved’ – “it is brushed under the carpet”. There is also a great article this week in The New Yorker entitled ‘Misremembering the British Empire’ which mentions brilliantly the amnesia, denial and pretentiousness that has whitewashed history.  There needs to be a re-balance with remembering the slave trade and also the rich histories of African culture before slavery.  You can ask most Black British who agree that this is not taught in detail in UK schools.  British slave trade and slavery are skimmed over, not explored for greater understanding or empathy, with most suffering from amnesia and ignorance.  There is no two ways on this – it was a horrible fact and African slavery used for capital, which built and propped up Britain with the riches and imperialistic power from slave labour from the colonies.  The rulers, leaders and elite in Britain supported and knew all along that this inhumanity was happening…but did nothing to stop it until the abolition movement in the late 18th and 19th century. 

Even in the 21st Century, the current tone of imperial might and successes are still reiterated today without balance and scrutiny which is harmful and causes devastation to communities and peoples. The nationalistic tone of Brexit has highlighted this blinkered way the UK thinks of Empire. …”Through the lens of pivotal moments in the post World War II world, this essay examines the breakup of the British Empire and how the vision of empire lives on, particularly in the context of global populism and a rapidly globalizing world. Brexit, the 2016 vote by popular referendum in the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union, is closely tied to the identity forged a century ago, at the height of the British Empire”. Source: Populism and British Stories of Decline by Joe Murphy in The American Journal of Economics and Socialogy.

The distasteful word Empire is still used in national awards with the word for honouring persons in the UK, which really is backwards if these persons have to engage with persons from outside the UK.  It is ignorance at the highest level. There is a great article I read which mentioned that if your heritage is from a post-colonial culture of anti-colonialism, rebellion and independence – the rejection of imperialism is natural as part of a contemporary psyche and freedom.  This is explained for Americans, who have seen centuries of imperialism and colonialism. …”The United States was formed through rebellion against the British empire, but well after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, resistance to that empire continued to shape America’s history. The civil rights movement, for instance, was not only deeply influenced by the thought and practices of the Indian anti-colonial movement, but it was also part of a wider anti-racist struggle in the era of decolonization that connected activists across Asia, Africa and beyond, mobilizing the global diasporas of Asians and Africans that colonialism had created”. Source: Prita Satia at Stanford Department of History entitled ‘We can’t tell Kamala Harris’s story without British Empire we can’t tell Americas without it either.

With this context in mind, you would be delusional to want to go back to that dark part of genocide, slavery and pillage that made people fight for their independence and freedom. The UK also seems to believe they were the ‘civilising force’, the best and only empire compared to their European counterparts, who started empires before the British. Posturing in true dominating style, empire is built on twisted power, influence, domination, destruction, looting and capital on the back and blood of other people and communities. The apex of this system also encourages and perpetuates white supremacy, which was used to control the new world order at the time.  It really has no place in modern and equitable societies.  There is no level playing field, structural equality or unity due to the divide and ruling structures that was used centuries ago to control the colonies. This is why we are experiencing so much racial and human discord at present – a true quiet revolution.

This month also saw an interest in stories of resistance, rebellion against slavery, and the fight for independence. I remember studying the Haitian Revolution 1791 in 1986-1987, whereby I had to write a eulogy for Toussaint L’Ouverture. Believe it or not – my eulogy was so good, the Caribbean Examination Council Board kept my eulogy possibly for preservation.  In those days, I didn’t think about keeping a copy, so I can’t remember the words I had written.  I remember my inspiration for writing the eulogy and making the actual hard copy headstone eulogy out of coloured paper, markers and a crinkle scissor. 

Back to the present, it will always be great to see that the story of the revolution is brought up today to discuss rebellion by self-liberated Black slaves.  The use of ancient voodoo and other African culture was also used to empower and fight for freedom.  I also attended a virtual event today on the new book ‘Black Spartacus’ by Sudhir Hazareesingh, which discussed Toussaint being a devoted Roman Catholic but also there was the use of voodoo. A Black British friend recently described the Haitian Revolution as ‘our first revolution’ and I am grateful for studying Caribbean history in Trinidad, pedagogy starting with the ancient and first nations people who inhabited the lands there.  It puts history with evidence, details and facts on the correct footing (pardon the pun) and in context. No wonder we are able to move away from an imperialistic perspective and create our own national pride. The same can’t be said for Britain’s imperial and colonial past in their UK history lessons. Is it too traumatic to teach about the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery in detail to young British children? Or to intentionally not covered the topic to keep the imperial status quo? Or to keep the military and capitalistic might?

It’s embarrassing that I’ve learnt more about colonial history from Instagram.

Elle Magazine October 2020

In the academic and research world, there is pedagogy and student intervention work on decolonising education, universities, museums, places and research. In an open and fair world, especially digitally, there is no place for ego, imperialistic behaviour and power.  I attended two virtual events which covered decolonisation – one at ‘Open and Engaged 2020’ by the British Library, and the ‘Festival of Ideas – Decolonising Knowledge’ for SOAS.

It was interesting seeing examples of decolonising research such as in language and context. Also the most horrifying was the use and study of Eugenics and the UCL Bricks and Mortal project on slavers, white supremists and persons with shady colonial pasts. …”Eugenics – the science of improving human populations through selective breeding – is generally associated with the Nazis, but in fact has its roots in Britain. It had its roots at UCL. The story of these origins is seldom told”.

Looking back at the slides now, this was such an eye-opening as well as mind-blowing event. From looking at the recurring themes of lack of diversity in books, professional research communities, the North-South global hemisphere divide, research content, acknowledgement and the recognition of indigenous original stories and representation.  Some of the presentations showcased the Palestine open maps projects, indigenous tribes of the Americas and stories from varied voices, such as the herb that was consider a weed by Western professionals until corrected by a South African researcher. With the lack of variety, scrutiny and diversity in scholarly research and structures – there is an imbalance, incorrect and false truths of the world.

At the SOAS virtual event ‘Decolonisation – not just a buzzword’, it was an art verbatim video with the sentiments, anecdotes and thoughts that were similar ones to those that are resonating in anti-racism discussions I have participated in recently.  Due to the remit of SOAS, they are working aptly and proactively to address decolonisation. …”It begins with the assumption that global histories of Western colonial domination have had the effect of limiting what counts as authoritative knowledge, whose knowledge is recognised, what universities teach and how they teach it”. Source: SOAS https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/decolonisingsoas/about/

It was interesting to hear one French speaking Belgium student said that when he was in India, there is distrust for him (possibly as a white European ex-coloniser coming to steal knowledge) when he wanted to view ancient manuscripts in Indian.  This student sounded in awe of the rich Indian items still to be discovered and explored. Though distrust by Indians perhaps is a culmination of years of abuse, destruction and removal of Indian manuscripts during colonialism.  The knowledge kept in ancient manuscripts is vast and comprehensive, as my ancestors have ensured we were told in Asian, and African, oral traditions and ceremonies. It was great to hear harsh and truthful global perspectives of imperialism, colonialism, racism, biases and international views from current academia at SOAS.

I have written about my Indian heritage on my blog before and therefore there are myriad ways of looking at the world, as well as hanging on to the intersectional of indigenous traditions, religion, culture, race and identity as a British-Indo-Caribbean married to an European.  This week it was a real privilege for me to visit the British Museum to see the ‘Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution Exhibition’, and I am able to understand my Indian heritage a bit more. Not everyone from the diaspora can do this though as mentioned too by one of the students at the SOAS event, and as mentioned by me on social media a few weeks ago.  In this exhibition, it is great to learn about Goddess Kali and her role in anti-colonialism. To be honest, we were told in Trinidad that her puja is dangerous, savage and powerful, which may have been tainted by imperialism, and intended to control the religious practices in the Caribbean as well as India. However, Kali puja was totally acceptable in Kolkata (previously known as Kalikota and Calcutta), and they used her imagery in revolutionary ways by indigenous Indians against British rule to instil fear and to empower. Goddess Kali is certainly Badass! 

We should be proud to have such ancient and powerful feminine images and forms in various Goddesses, and Navratri is a great as an auspicious time to remember the feminine form and cosmic energy. We held prayers at this time in my home in the Caribbean. I liked understanding the belief in feminine power and that women have Shakti all the time. Also the Tantra counter-culture of the 1960s was great to see – from John and Alice Coltrane, The Rolling Stones to artwork. John and Alice Coltrane were fans of the higher consciousness of these traditions and knowledge obviously. These arts forms have accepted and moved with the mutually respective times to fused cultures in new innovative art.

It is great to learn about provenance and to see decolonisation in context to items held in museums that were once part of imperialistic acquisitions, treasure hunts and domination.

Another common thread recently was land acknowledgement of indigenous and first nation peoples, which I witnessed at professional events and discussions including both by the British Library and SLA. This really shows up pretentiousness, falsehoods and insensitive rhetoric from colonisers that still insist on dominating with their imperial ‘brand’ to this day.  It has been decades whereby ex-colonies have achieved self-determination, independence and freedom. The post-colonial shift are by nations and citizens who have matured with new self-identities. I am not that naive – I also know that there is reverse racism and bias in all people. We really need complete balance, truthful and fair understanding of history and colonisation now.  We need to peacefully revolutionise and abolish the white-centric power struggle and structural inequalities that still exist in western societies, institutions, organisation, countries and the media.  Or at least know how to best deal with it. Perhaps to even ridicule inequalities and colonisation as a message, as reiterated by a student at UCL, and by other freedom revolutionaries in the past.

I conclude with a statement: I was born on Caribbean indigenous land, which belonged to ancient tribes, and now live on Briton land (once colonisers if my homeland) – which makes an odd but balance view of the world.  Going forward by the events this month, it is time for some post-colonial truth and equality.  Prejudice, structural racism, inequality and dominance are prevented on our watch.

An English Staycation 2020

The last few months there have been several stories of countries that are now in the quarantine list if you are thinking of going on a summer holiday abroad due to COVID-19. However, way before the summer holidays came long, we decided to cancel my flights and travel to Trinidad and Tobago. I prefer to go when it is safer to go as well as to go in a time when I can experience the beauty of the country. I probably would have to go into quarantine on my return if  I went now. So it was necessary that our flights are cancelled, and our summer holiday plans redirected to local areas and within England. It is a necessary decision has made by several holidaymakers as reported in the news. This was my third staycation in eight years, and a great way to do spend time in this country.

It is also necessary to find time for a holiday. We have been working doubly hard from home in a very challenging situation. On top of this, my volunteering is very intensive and busy this year which means that I do actually want some time to myself and to go away from the urban sights I see on most days. We all need downtime like this regardless of the current situation with COVID-19 and this blog post covers the few mini-breaks I have had in the last few weeks.

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Boudica – Iceni Briton

Earlier this month, we were still in COVID-19 alertness stage so I left it to the last minute to book some time in Norwich. I only live two hours away from the rural and quiet areas of Norfolk and Suffolk but never arranged a time to visit these areas in the past. We were experiencing some hot weather at the beginning of the month and it was really promising to visit these areas. The two most remarkable items are driving through the forest near Thetford where there were signs on the historical sites of the Iceni Villages that existed on that region. The Iceni lived there about 2000 years ago and are famous for resisting the Romans for their land and property. Boudica was the wife of their Briton leader of the Iceni tribe and the story of her battle and leadership is still legendary today. Perhaps another time I will explore the area again to learn more about their story.

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Norfolk and Suffolk Borders

I do love driving in the countryside and seeing rural scenes of crops, tractors, fields and country lanes. I am a country village girl by heart and appreciate how these rural communities keep traditions as well as provide valuable food and other suppliers to us who live and work in city centres. It is so much easier now to drive with satellite navigation and smart technology.

Our first stop with the Catholic Shrine at Little Walsingham where there was a sighting of the Virgin Mary. The shine as mentioned in this tour blog states: In the year 1061, Lady Richeldis, owner of Walsingham manor, had a vision in which she was taken by Mary and shown the house in Nazareth where Gabriel had announced the news of the birth of Jesus. Mary asked her to build a replica of the house in Walsingham”. When we arrived at the Shrine, it was very hot on that day and it was great to finally visit the shrine after it being on my curious radar for a while. I said a little prayer and it has a beautiful garden and pilgrim areas for large tours but being a pandemic – it was quiet.

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My husband had also visited the shine as a child and has photos at the shrine and the seaside that was close by. The village is also known for the Abbey ruins which I didn’t have time to see and it is also great for snowdrops in spring. The village was quaint and quiet and I loved the little red building there and the surrounding countryside on the way to Wells-Next-the-Sea.

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The next stop was the northern Norfolk coastal town of Well-Next-the-Sea where it was busy with English holiday-makers during a heatwave in a pandemic. It was nice to walk around the main roads to see the high street and have some lunch. They also have this small library and it was a reminder that obviously people do live and work here with some essential buildings and shops. It really makes you think about your own surroundings and whether you can live in a quiet and quaint place like this outside the holiday season. The coast at Wells-Next-the-Sea was something I have only seen in photos or seen on Google images. The sand dunes and port were small but busy with people walking along the bank to the sea. There were also a lot of holiday homes or caravan parks all along the Norfolk coast and it was quite a quintessentially English thing to see families spending their holidays.

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We also drove along the coast to Cromer and it seemed a little bit more built up with a pier and seaside promenade. It was nice to grab an ice cream and look across at the sea just before sunset.

The sea, sand and beach huts were great to see especially at a time when you don’t want to venture abroad. If the seawater was slightly different in colour and warmer, there would be little reason to travel abroad on holiday during the summer months permanently. I always admire our Italian and Trinidadian relatives who go to the beaches in their countries without having to travel abroad. I did see some photos on social media with water being clearer, blue and warm in the English south coast. I hope to visit another time.

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The next day I spent the morning in the market town Norwich, which I have always wanted to visit. I loved the little streets with shops, river with the Norwich Cathedral steeple striking an imposing structural icon for the surrounding areas. I have a friend who said she always liked it as a university town and the surrounding countryside. I also found out about Edith Cavell, who was born near Norwich, as I went past the pub and monument dedicated to her. Edith is well known for being a British nurse who saved British and Belgian soldiers from during the First World War. She was arrested and then sentenced to death: “despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage”. No wonder there was a pub and monument dedicated to her humanity and life.

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Norwich seems like the biggest city in that area, the home of chef and food writer Delia Smith, and also Norwich Football Club. I attended a family wedding reception, which was a beautiful day. I would like to visit the Norfolk broads and also see some more of the countryside another time, especially as it is not far from London.

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I also popped into Southwold on my way back to London the next day. It was a lot busier than the last time I visited as we were in the height of a heatwave, summer holidays and in the staycation pandemic.

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I was able to walk on some of the sand dunes I have been seeing on Instagram and it really is a lot nicer when the weather is warmer. There were lots of shops serving food tp take away due to COVID-19 restrictions, and we were able to find a café for lunch for those who wanted to eat in. It was the first time we had to give our phone number and the waitress took our temperature to see whether may have COVID-19. It was also nice to finish my a few days away by just driving back home with no airport security, baggage check and long aeroplane or train journey.

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A few days away made me stop thinking of work, which is mainly in my home at present, and it also took me away from my surrounding neighbourhood, which I love but can also cause aggravations with urban irritations such as environmental pollutions such as rubbish and noise. My time during lockdown has been spent walking the lovely quieter streets of Walthamstow that has fewer people, nice flowers or homes for me to ease my busy mind, as well as part of my daily walking exercise routine. Even this time outside locally is special as I found myself having to self-isolate after having two possible COVID-19 infections, but they both were proven as negative results. It is hard staying in for those 3-5 days until you get your test results.

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There is one reason why we still go abroad on sunny holidays abroad…the weather! The last three weeks the weather has been awful with rainy summer days and colder nights. This is one of the reasons I sometimes prefer to go abroad as the days are guaranteed to be warmer and the seaside pleasures a little bit nicer. We have come to the end of August and it would have been a little bit more bearable if the weather had remained a little bit more pleasant until we reached the end of summer. Today would have been Notting Hill Carnival weekend and it is so cold…I am pleased that it has moved to online due to Covid-19. Perhaps if the virus is controlled, I look forward to a better warmer year next year.

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My trip to end the summer on a high was the visit to Whitstable because the weather had been forecasted to stay sunny. I had always planned to visit as my manager lived there for many years and you always see articles of Londoners moving there, or going on day trips. I went this weekend where it was nice to see it at last! It was great to see the seaside high street shops and the library.

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I also liked the promenade to walk, stalls selling arts and crafts on the seafront. I had paella in a café but the oysters are famous in Whitstable, perhaps for another time. I also was happy that I was able to visit in a day and able to drive back home with only a little bit of a queue at the Blackwall Tunnel.

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Covid-19 has prevented us from visit places and family in faraway lands. We have had to re-think our need and purpose for travelling during a pandemic. It has given us opportunities to travel within our own countries…like we used to 40-50 years ago. I am still discovering parts of the UK and the staycation of summer 2020 has helped me tick off a few places I have wanted to see in the UK that are not very far away from me. I am still to visit Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District, rural Wales and Scotland. I look forward to seeing more of these regions in the years to come.

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Black Lives Matter – social justice and protest during the pandemic

In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.

– Angela Davis

If being in the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t challenging enough, the last month brought about an intensifying and urgent need for social change and activism in the short term, and hopefully in the long term. The reason for this watershed moment is the death of George Floyd while being arrested by Police in Minnesota USA, with bystanders recording the arrest showing officers restraining him and one, in particular, resting a knee on his neck, whilst Floyd can be heard pleading “I can breathe”. This racial violence was recorded on smartphones and shared on social media, which made the brutality of his death on camera go viral across the globe. You can only imagine what happens between the police and black men off the camera – hold that thought. Shocking and uncomfortable to watch and discuss. Floyd’s death has given greater coverage and a wider mission to the Black Lives Movement (BLM) from the across the USA, UK, Paris, Rome, India, Hong Kong to Oceania. In the same month, there was the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks. This has exposed the emotion, anger, annoyance and the solidarity with the BLM cause and movement.  It has made the social justice fight more obviously to everyone’s consciousness, and this is an opportunity for positive change to correct the disparities in inequality between rich and poor, black and white, good and bad. I also know that there are good cops… and there are bad cops but some reform, training and education are needed.

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Obviously, I am speaking on behalf of the black population that are marginalised and systematically oppressed over four centuries. For balance, we must also remember there are lots to celebrate in the black community’s resilience by the successes and excellence they gave and have achieved in all walks of life.

Don’t get me wrong, I wish there were more police walking the beat in my neighbourhood after having two police stations decimated about 10 years ago, and even greater reductions across the United Kingdom. However, the main issue is that Black Lives Matter, but there are high levels of the black population who are more than twice as likely to die in police custody, with little justice received by families. There are fewer opportunities for black people due to inequalities of wealth, education, employment and numerous barriers due to the colour of their skin. The prison service has a large number of black people who may not be able to live the normal peaceful life that most of us take for granted. There is a cycle of lack of opportunities and social mobility in very rich countries such as the USA and UK. In addition, there are not enough opportunities for black people in normal organisations…and higher up the corporate ladder.

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Shop Window on Wood Street.

It also seems that centuries of history of Afro-American slavery, the Americas’ and Europe’s relationship to the black community are being put to test due to the systemic, institutional racism and prejudices that continue to exist in society. We cannot deny this fact.

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The Black Lives Matter movement started about seven years ago to respond to high levels of deaths and discrimination in the Black population and has a wider remit to encompass and campaign with activism for more equality in a world, which has been shaped like this over centuries of inequality, injustice and white supremacy – especially in former colonies. The shackles of slavery to the Americas have created insurmountable inequality and racial tensions throughout the centuries – Atlantic African Slave Labour was used for consumption and industry in Europe too. The wealth and remnants of slave traders, “West Indian Trader” and merchants are still honoured in our city centres, buildings, and richness treasures – procured, stolen or extracted with human slave labour and is still very much in our midst.

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I didn’t study American history but we were taught indigenous history of the Americas and the Caribbean up to the modern-day. It is no shock to learn about the brutality and de-humanisation of slavery. There was no whitewashing of history and there is intellectual confidence in my peers in the Caribbean. Luckily I have personal insight and experience to know that the story is one of redemption, reconciliation and resilience for the descendants of slaves who still live in my homeland. The Afro-Caribbean community in the Caribbean are mainly okay now and have excelled in their chosen fields. They do not have the same levels of inequalities and barriers you get from the USA and UK. The societal structures are less rigid or oppressive, and you can have great levels of social mobility with a well-rounded education and opportunities. There was no knowledge deficit.

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Consistent. Some things don’t change for me. This is my A’Level West Indian (we did European History too) history book.

Learning about the Caribbean, and Europe, gave us a well-grounded and balanced reality, which meant we are able to rise about it. I am also the descendant of indentured labourers and business migrants from India, and so I empathise and understand with my Caribbean heritage its’ global influences. One thing the British Imperialist get wrong is the imbalances in the historical narratives – the feeling that they are better than others because of the Empire, the imperialistic pomp and ceremony, riches and splendour that accrued over time from the colonies at the expense of black (and other people of colour) lives.  You just have to look at some modern-day black lives film (e.g. Twelve Years a Slave or Selma), and TV dramas to see that it was one rule for them and one rule for the others.

Putting this simply – the term white privilege and white supremacy was brought about as a form of oppression between classes and races that the elite-controlled to keep the status quo. The rules and infrastructure of segregation between the races were created for the so-called ‘white supremacy’ to uphold privileges and prevent integration of races. We are talking about systematic and institutional racism that still exists in the UK, and most evidently still in the USA. You just have to look at the issues with Windrush Scandal in the UK, and other major inequalities to see that this issue has not gone away. Lack of empathy and knowledge is the real impact of colonisation in the 21st Century. There is also a need for humility and recognition of injustices in the past from our white community as the celebration of Empire and colonialism had deep scars and hurt. This is one of the reasons for a call for decolonisation of history and adding Black British history to the curriculum. In recent weeks, I have seen many discussions on the lack of teaching about centuries of African Slavery in British Colonies in British schools today.

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I am not naive to think in the Caribbean and other parts of the world do not have their own racism. I also think it will not ever go away and we will need to keep reminding people to think of our privileges, unconscious and conscious biases. We must aim to be anti-racist as civilised human beings in the 21st century.

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Home – Upper Walthamstow.

It was twenty years ago that I was asked to catalogue the Macpherson report when it was released on the 1993 killing of Stephen Lawrence, and the institutional racism that prevented his family from getting the justice they deserved. You could say that I don’t know what I am talking about, or that I am a trouble-maker but these are the same issues we should be talking about as librarian and information professionals who are serving various communities across our countries in a global world. At the SLA Leadership symposium in New Orleans, there was a strong focus on Diversity and Inclusion with a practical exercise on white privilege. This endorsed my libraries and information professional stance. There is also a test for you to check your privilege and there are numerous resources, best practice and reading materials I have helped collated, seen and shared in the last few weeks. We are also looking to make these into actionable targets, to make a genuine change with organisation culture and in wider ways with the Black community and everyone.

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I also mentioned the Black Lives Movement and Decolonisation campaigns in my talk in September 2019 at the SLA Europe conference. It is rigid and unfair institutional racial structures, media irresponsibility and personal unconscious and conscious bias that makes humans behave this way.   In recent weeks, the sheer shocking emotions and discrimination witnessed by everyone are being discussed now and has come to the forefront of our social consciousness for social justice. It is with this momentum that I was asked to take part in the SLA Diversity Inclusion Community and Equity (DICE) arranged talk on ‘What is the reality of COVID-19 where you live now; What does the protest movement look like where you are; and what have these individual or combined epic events mean to you? ‘. This solidarity and standing up for the injustices for people in our community is not something we can just let it go by until it blows over. There does seem to be a real sea change for action and genuine empathy and understanding in the current mood during a global pandemic that is not just a few weeks old…but a couple of centuries late!

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The protest movement in Bristol a couple of weeks ago on the dismantle of Edward Colston’s statue was a defining moment in British Slave History. I don’t know much about British Slave owners in the UK but I do remember learning in secondary school about the champion of freedom such as Toussaint L’Ouverture in the Haitian Revolution and abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. It is a shame that slave owners and traders are still glorified today without some context to their supposed acquired wealth and glory. I must admit that I was pleased to see that the statue was dismantled considering the enormous part Colston played in slavery, death of Africans bound to the Americas and the pretentiousness of his philanthropy in Bristol. When we talk about plantations in the Caribbean and America – we know whose labour was used for the sugar cane, cotton, minerals etc. These products were then sent back to Europe – where there is very little to explain where and how the raw materials and wealth came to Britain. The death of George Floyd in the last few weeks created a wave of protest against institutional and systematic racism which still perpetuates today and the dismantle and vandalising of statues and buildings that glorify this dirty and seedy economic and human history are only catching up with the shady past. Obviously, I don’t encourage the damage of property but the wounds, emotion and feeling in the current generation of all races are raw as ever. The Black Lives Matter movement has given an identity and a label to this energy to make a difference just like Toussaint and Wilberforce.

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Shared on Facebook.

A lot of white people are saying that ‘All Lives Matter’ – yes they do but…the correct argument is that Black Lives are more disproportionally at risk from death in police custody, poverty, inequality, injustices, employment, promotion, reward and life chances. A young black boy may be stopped by the police 40 more times than a young white boy. The young black boy may be more exposed to crime due to the area and the lack of opportunities he has (I do know that not all young black men are into crime). The black role models in our media are lacking in the UK in positions of authority and power. Even as an adult, there are still struggles, barriers and oppression. White Privilege means that you are unlikely to experience these barriers, obstacles and constant judgement based on the colour of your skin. I am brown and I am certain that I do not encounter all the issues that a black person may experience throughout their life. You Gov have recently published a survey on 1001 BAME persons which states that virtually identical numbers of people believe racism exists in the country today (84%) compared to (86%) thirty years ago. This is the true negative ‘lived experience’ of being Black and British from four hundred years ago…to now.

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I am also grateful to see that my employers and others leading businesses have taken a stance on correcting some of the wrongs, allowing and partaking in open discussions in large groups, which is being enabled by video conferencing. On the one hand, we are still trying to work through a pandemic of COVID-19…and on the other hand, we are trying to focus attention on Black Lives Matter – a pandemic within a pandemic as it has recently been put in protests. It seems that racism within the police force mentioned in the Macpherson Report is still happening now in the 21st century. It is not enough to just not be a racist. It shows great leadership to demonstrate and work towards being an anti-racist organisation at all levels in a global community.

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There are other issues too with lower-paid and front line jobs compared to the white middle-classes who tend to have better jobs, reward packages and benefit from social mobility and better quality of life. In COVID-19, there have been higher deaths in the BAME population both for health and social care staff employees, but also for patients who have died. Inequalities, being in the front line for lower-paid jobs and racism are some of the reason for the disproportionate levels of the death being higher in the BAME community in the UK during COVID-19. We have every reason to shout BLACK LIVES MATTER!

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Only in darkness can you see the stars.

– Martin Luther King

The Black Lives Matter protest movement has been great for bringing communities together to protest and campaign for better rights, better equality, understanding and respect to the black community for their part in building societies from America, the UK and other parts of the world. For far too long the rhetoric and the ‘systems’ have been prejudiced against black persons, indigenous and people of colour. I loved seeing the Rolling for Rights protest videos last week in San Diego – there were thousands of young and mixed supporters marching for Black Lives Matter, this has been replicated in various cities of the world.

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In my own neighbourhood, the Stand Up to Racism campaign with volunteers has brought about solidarity and support for the Black Lives Matter causes from the long term and new instances. It is a meeting place for young and old supporters to tell their stories of biases and what still needs to be done to improve relations and representation in a multicultural city. Multiculturalism and multiple ethnicities are the legacies of colonisation and imperialism. There is a disconnection with other cultures and the people in this world that played the part of all our shared global histories. The saddest part for me is hearing of deaths in police custody or at the hands of the police at this event. I am also not happy with the high level of deaths of young black men in the city that I live in too due to gang culture and drug dealing! I also do not like terrorism in the city that I live in. There is a lot of hatred and misunderstanding as a result of race, cultural and religious differences. In all aspects of life, we try to avoid talking intelligently and fairly about race and politics, but they have been put on the agenda in the last decade (or forever!) due to the current political and racial tensions. Race is uncomfortable for all of us to discuss but there are some tips here by the Smithsonian Museum.

So what do we do now?

Big and small businesses are responding to the situation by being proactive with changes and actions in their messages, recruitment and corporate culture in a world that is diverse. At my employers, the British Library, we are working on Black Lives Matter and it is on the agenda for the long term. There have been some proactive demonstrations of leadership on BLM and I hope this will be sustained in future.  Some best examples are SONY, Ben and Jerry Ice Creams, KPMG, Netflix etc – this is the best practice. It is also up to us to have a personal responsibility to be anti-racist and to check our own biases and privileges for a fair society for humanity. We should use creative arts, culture and education to connect us to our history and the myriad of colours and people that are part of the same history. We should also re-balance history with the great ancient civilisations of Africa, as I saw mentioned recently by a Black British celebrity.

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Read and be Educated on the Topic.

We should be allies of the Black Lives Matter movement just as you may want gender equality, LGBT+ equality and rights, and even white-male-bonding-without-the-racism. We should aim to make steps forward, take positive and confident action to bring about genuine change in a colourful world that is far more interesting in just black and white.

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I have had my own little battles over the years but generally do not encounter overt racism. People tend to look at me and see an Indian woman – they do not know that I am Trinidadian and I am way ahead of the game in my knowledge of slavery, my respect for black role models and black culture, which is part of my Trinidadian culture and identity. What I can do for my black brothers and sisters, is to share my insight, support and knowledge of our place in global history, the present and hope for the future. I will take personal responsibility to stay true to my authentic self, and will stand up for other races, cultures and lives in a multicultural connected world.

We may have come on different ships, but we are on the same boat now.

–  Martin Luther King.

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Lockdown and Love in the time of Coronavirus COVID-19

Like you, I didn’t realise that our lives and way of living would change so drastically since my last blog post in February. I have been keeping an eye on the developments in China since January and I have mentioned Coronavirus in my last blog post, and social media since February but there was very little to prevent us from what we are now witnessing and experiencing in our own lives.

On 23 February on my drive back from the South East, the radio mentioned draconian measures enforced in Italy to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) – little did we know that this will lead to other lockdowns in the UK and most parts of the world. We are truly in this together and I am covering my experience of this time in quarantine, social distancing and social isolation, as they are now known. We are also going to give this virus a good fight and there are amazing human stories that are a result of this strange and exceptional time in history.

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The Coronavirus (COVID 19) virus is evidently infectious, contagious and dangerous to humans all over this world. It is currently having a devastating impact with a high level of mortality in China, Italy, Spain, Iran, France – with growing numbers in the UK, USA and other countries to follow. This virus has not only affected our working lives but the whole essence of our being and freedom with uncertainty in unprecedented times. We must stay in our homes with our immediate families to prevent the spread of the virus, and to decrease the pressure on health systems. The only places we are allowed to go to are places to get food, necessities and exercise.

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I have read about the history of pandemics but never thought that there will be a time when we will be in the same situation. I was amazed to see that these plagues or pandemics were threats that humans have had to fight off since the beginning of time. The infographic above was shared on social media and is a great eye-opener for previous pandemics, to the modern epidemics like Ebola, SARS etc. I still remember reading as a child that we say ‘Bless You’ after sneezes due to the plague whereby the Pope Gregory encouraged it as a blessing for the ill. Quarantine is also the Italian word for 40 days isolation (Quaranta) from the Middle Ages when merchant ships return to ports to prevent the spread of foreign diseases. It is also interesting to learn that Shakespeare also lived and wrote through the plague with references in some of his major works like ‘King Lear’ and ‘Macbeth’. It was also a terrible time for the theatres and other social gatherings such as theatres, which were closed in that period.

Diptych of a portrait of Shakespeare and an illustration of the plague.
Source: Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/shakespeare-plague-influence-hot-hand-ben-cohen.html

The most intriguing for me is the Spanish Flu 1918. I vaguely heard it mentioned in the past but due to the current coronavirus, there are similar references to it and a reminder that only a few living persons now have memories of it. The National Archives has a letter from 28th October 1918 by E.S. Bennett from Walthamstow with the rate of death is mentioned as Doctors are on ‘constant call’, while undertakers ‘can’t turn the coffins out or bury the people quick enough”. IWM 96/3/1 (28 Oct 1918)

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Spanish Flu Letter – Byron Road, Walthamstow, 28 October 1918

There are some other interesting blogs on this topic if you have the time to read – In 1918, the death rate in Britain exceeded the birth rate for the first year since Government started maintaining records in 1837.  Yet this was not due to the First World War, but to so-called ‘Spanish Flu’’. It is reassuring to see other human experience of this in the past and that it is not going to last forever despite the high level of death. These experiences will hopefully make us more resilient for the future.

Now back to the present time Coronavirus pandemic. When Ebola was getting under control a few years ago, I do remember this video by Bill Gates but it is interesting to hear his prediction on the current pandemic and the state of unpreparedness if this was to be on a larger global scale as it is now compared to the West Coast of Africa. This is now real. Believe me – I have family and friends in lockdown all over this world and we are worried and concerned about their safety and welfare. We have been hearing first hand from relatives from Italy as the scale of the pandemic increased, and they were put into lockdown. We were having first-hand stories on the situation and the changes they have had to make for work (getting permission to move about by Commune in Italy) and remaining at home. This was soon to be our own experiences. I remember seeing the sale of pasta flying off the shelves and the queues outside supermarkets in Italy as the country went into lockdown. However, they have generally been organised and didn’t have the level of panic buying as in the UK for groceries. Their tone has become more and more concerning as the weeks progressed with further bad news with the viruses devastating effect in Italy.

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Italy is by far the hardest-hit country in terms of recorded deaths as I write this blog post – even more than China where it starts perhaps late November 2019. It has been heart-breaking in the last few days seeing the level of deaths and this has to be investigated further for the reasons for the spread of the disease there. There are probably a number of reasons for the spread of the infectious fatal virus – Milan has links to suppliers in China, there was a football match in Milan between Atlanta (from Bergamo) and Valencia, the commutable towns close to Milan which are affected, and the whole social way of life and extended family life in Italy. It also has one of the highest aged populations in the world and other contributions to the spread – from the Italians communal living in flats, church attendance, general close human contact with the extended family and friends. This was sadly breathing grown for the virus and contagions to spread. This is just my personal view and thoughts from what I have read, but hopefully, there will lessons learnt from this devastating impact of Coronavirus in the Lombardy region. Similar stories are also now unfolding to various degrees of death and virus cases in Europe and other parts of the world.

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In the early weeks of lockdown, the Italians in quarantine were able to use their time to spread cheer, joy, happiness from their balconies and neighbourhoods. This has changed in recent days due to the sheer devastating number of death and virus cases coming out of Italy. In Spain, France, Iran and the UK – we have all been cheering on our healthcare workers and key workers through this difficult, anxious and dangerous time on the front line.

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Traveler at St Pancras – February 2020

In hindsight, we could have all been more prepared for the pandemic with critical care information, preventative and preparation for our lives and the health service. There has been a slow build-up of information for us to be more vigilant – with was your hands better, sanitizer and eventually with social distancing and self-isolation. Eventually, the state had to step in due to much movement in our everyday lives to work, school, business and other commitments. Coincidently, I was off from work from the 13th March and only went in for a few hours on 18th March. Since then we have been working form home and adjusting to life.

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At short notice too, I had to drive to Derby to pick up my son from University. My 16 year old had just finished his mock exams but was told that same week will be the last week of his year. This was also an abrupt end to his secondary year with a quick assembly to wish his friends and teachers goodbye…for now. Graduation ceremonies are also postponed. I do agree this had to be done because I think we were not aware of the impact on and the dangers of children spreading the disease further to others in society. Nurseries and other children services are also now closed. For parents with young or special needs children – this will be a challenging time. However, I think in the next 5-10 years, children will understand this shut down was for the greater good and it is to help with the prevention of the spread of the virus and support for our health systems.

Just like my colleagues at work, we were also unprepared and shocked by the lockdown that has been happening in China in the last few weeks. I made the decision to go into work on the 18th March to tie up a few loose ends, and even though I have worked remotely one day of the week when my children were younger, I haven’t done this at all at the British Library as we are very much face-to-face interactions with our customers in the reading room, workshops and in one-to-one advice. In the last ten days or so, we have really had to adjust our offering with continuing some of the digital information services and knowledge that we can share remotely. We have been working swiftly to change our programmes where possible to be delivered from our homes and I think this is going as good as you would expect considering the unexpected and unusual circumstances we find ourselves. Our physical events have moved to online events and we are seeking research resources that are open-sourced on the Internet. However, most of our resources are still unavailable due to the contractual and technical issues and are not available remotely. The library’s rich hard copy collection is also locked up securely until we are able to access them again. Information Professionals in the 21st century are digitally advanced and some of us are able to offer services remotely, and curate content that is available for free.

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Some of the winners in the digital switch in lockdown are systems such as Zoom, Skype, House Party, Whats App and VPN (Virtual Private Network). Also, effective digital communications have been an enabler in this real-life crisis management scenario. I have hosted and attend video conference meetings at home using Go-to-Meeting in the past, and will continue to do so in lockdown. We are also looking to host online learning and workshops with Go-to-Webinar. In both my stay-at-home day job and volunteering with SLA Europe – we are using these technologies. As with human behaviour – there is a lot of humour and reassurance with some technical issues that we are all experiencing. It certainly is a learning curve! However, I have been through the 7/7 London Bombings, the London Riots 2011 and other causes for working from home in a crisis.

It is also great to see that people are looking after their wellbeing, mindfulness, kindness and exercise routine despite being stuck at home. We have also hosted webinars for working remotely and doing research from home. Some of the best tips are to make sure you have a routine, a positive mindset, exercise, be realistic on what you can do from work, and also use your time wisely. This is where our home lives merge with work life and you have to understand your own boundaries.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of the pandemic was access to food and essential supplies. As I was off work on the 13th March – I noticed that there was panic buying and the supply chain was disrupted to a very severe level. These carried on for about two full weeks until my supermarket was able to introduce social distancing and more sanitised procedures for their customers and staff. Local shops have also been useful to supplement some of the supply issues the UK was experiencing. The whole joke about toilet rolls selling out was amusing…but seriously, it was also the same for fruit, vegetables, rice, bread, pasta etc. Online deliveries were also most affected and I was unable to get my normal slots. Even if I do online food shopping now, I am not sure if I can get everything I ordered with the disruptions in supply. The use of bidets in Italian homes may be one of the reasons there wasn’t the toilet paper panic buying there. In the UK since lockdown, there are also cases of people breaking the stay-at-home rules by having parties or going to beauty tourist spots when they should really stay in their vicinity.

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One to the biggest impact is that we are not allowed to travel and fly as freely as some may like, but seriously it is also one of the components for the escalation of the infections of the virus spreading so easily in the age of globalisation. It is also great that we may have some light relieve on our CO2 emissions in this quiet travel time. Airlines and travel agencies are obviously struggling due to travel restrictions but it may be a good time for us to reflect and change our behaviour with regards to unnecessary flying.

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The virus has no boundaries and affects all of us. It really brings to mind the way civilisations are organised, governed and the role of citizens. Businesses have had to shut down and are only able to open in cases of necessity. There are still some businesses that are still open like take-away food services, pharmacies and pet shops.  The others are closed due to public health orders to protect staff and the public from gathering. This fatal disease has not discriminated and so, big as well as small businesses are affected. The self-employed, charities and other voluntary organisations are also affected. Even if you are retired – you are still affected, as you do not have your freedom to roam. The pressure is building on businesses to adapt and implement their business continuity and crisis management plans. There are some positive aspects and re-purposing such as companies that are helping with changing their models – such as producing sanitizers, ventilators, Personal Preventive Equipment (PPE), food supply rather than restaurants, etc. However, it must be clear that the global economy will be affected and there are hard days ahead with a recession predicted. There are some companies that are stepping up to the challenges, collaborating and also protecting their staff and clients. The trade unions are also busy looking after workers and making sure that workers are protected in this very difficult time. We will also see that the use of goodwill and kindness will be essential when we press the reset button when this is over.

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Local community groups were foreseeing these changes before workplaces and government. One of my neighbours quickly organised community leaflets for older or non-digital neighbours to contact us should they need help with shopping or anything in the imminent lockdown. Thankfully we are able to coordinate and support each other on various local services and also cheer each other on in these difficult times. It is strange going around with shops and businesses closed. As we are allowed an hour of exercise, I have tried to go out every day for a walk locally to get some fresh air. It is difficult in an urban setting to practice social distancing but most of us are trying to keep our distance. In the run-up to lockdown, I had to cancel three social events with friends, and even birthdays and Mother’s Day are celebrated apart. We have been in touch with friends and family by Whats App, Facebook Messenger and Zoom – just imagine if we didn’t have these technologies and only had to rely on letters.

People are also using this time to catch up on all the leisure and homebound tasks that they do not have had time. This is one of the best aspects for using our time in lockdown to do the things we never really had time for – film, music, reading, gardening, talking more and spending time with dear ones in our homes. I do recognise that not all of us have families and there is a lot of loneliness, anxiety, depression and mental illness that will be exasperated by being confined. I dread to think of the homeless, people with mental illness and in the community who are less fortunate and how they are coping with this. I do believe that they are being cared for by social care and local government agencies.

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As the pandemic has spread across the globe, concern for the wellbeing and safety for family, friends and communities near and far has become an obsession. This is a global issue for human life where ever we are. It really is unique in our living collective experience. We are facing the same issues from within our homes and we are reliant on the same care systems to get us through it. Unfortunately, this is still on-going and we are still to know the devastation that the virus will have on less prepared and poorer countries. Italy, Spain, China, France Iran and USA are leading the death barometer, and they are struggling – we can only hope that the impact will not be as devastating in less developed countries. The assistance offered from Cuba and Russia and other countries to Italy has been good to see online and restores your faith in humanity. This story from the New York Times is a must-read on the situation for families in Italy during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Since January, there has been news coming from China but the number of deaths at first is alarming and the lockdown was weirdly fascinating to see in the news. However, since the virus’s exponential spread to Western Europe and the Middle East, this has been one situation where you can look at the news on social media and get information, news coverage and datagraphics that is supplementary from the normal broadcasting agencies. I am also able to keep abreast of the developments in the Caribbean and North America from social media and website feeds. I have been looking at facts and figures at BNO Newsroom, World in Data and the Financial Times (who has loosened their usual pay-wall). There are also the usual suspects – fake news, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, fraud, cybercrime and scams by rogues. This is also a gentle reminder that the NHS has a great number of information centres and libraries with professionals who are providing library and knowledge services.

With the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelming healthcare systems and some level of lockdown in all corners of the world, we find ourselves in an unprecedented era of information demand. At the same time, the pace of discovery and dissemination of information is faster than ever before, creating uncertainty and stress about where to find reliable answers. …While these initiatives have not been associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency of our current situation has shifted the focus to developing solutions to improve the knowledge ecosystem today.

– Dr Brian Alper EBSCO The Development of a Covid-19 Information Portal

https://health.ebsco.com/blog/article/the-development-of-a-covid-19-information-portal

 

The most important lesson to learn about Coronavirus Covid-19 is that we are fragile as humans. Good health and access to healthcare are the most important factors in our lives. This is something some of us have known for a long time and it is with utter respect and understanding that we should invest, support, provide and reward our health services in this country and around the world. Public services and local government services are also in need of our support to keep the engines of society and humanity at an equilibrium. Outside hospitals, good hygiene and sanitation are getting attention now but there is still a lot to be desired. Low paid ‘key workers’ have been providing us with our essential foods in the urban environments but we should be grateful to everyone – from the rural farmers, delivery drivers, the rubbish collector, postal services, local shop keepers, emergency services, police, firemen, park keepers, pharmacists etc. Those who do not use these now vital services, or any public services should go live in their own isolated country! Whilst we are inside our homes, the key workers are out in the front line fight overtime in the good fight for us.

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We still are in the heart of the Coronavirus pandemic and I am not sure how this will turn out for all of us. The cost of human life is enormous. And the impact in the economy is also bad. However, we need to support our health care systems and services. We also need to support everyone whilst we stay at home, follow instructions to avoid social gathering and practise social distancing. The human stories that find their way to the media are exceptional and very heart-breaking such as the medical staff who lost their lives, to the thousands who have died or been affected by the virus. One thing about past plagues in previous centuries is that life carried on to a certain extent and humanity was not totally wiped-out. Obviously, it is very sad for the millions of lives lost such as in the Spanish Flu 1918. I am not sure what the situation will be with Coronavirus by the end of April (or in future months) but we will come out of this hopefully together.

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Everything and everyone has become a player in this real-life apocalyptic movie with this deadliest disease in our modern memory. As we spend time with our families and dear ones, we must cherish and care for each other. We are discovering things about ourselves, and hopefully using this strange and quiet time in quarantine to do some fun and creative things we didn’t have the time to do. Love sustains. We will also be better resilient persons for understanding life and love in this time of coronavirus.

You just have to walk around in the quiet streets to realise that our human life is on pause until we beat this virus – country by country, community by community, and human by human.

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Cabaret, Clubs and Art Scenes – Heart of all the Action

After the festive season, January is always really difficult to keep you self-motivated as it is a start of a busy new year, with resolutions, work targets and goals to finish off. Despite the difficulty staying focus, there will be challenges with keeping to your own self-imposed promises. However, it is also great to make time to relax and spend with good friends by going out and about in the many attractions that we have as Londoners. This year I didn’t have to do any of the social planning…I just had to join along in the good cheer, to not one or two events, but six in total! Some of them were low cost and some at the high-end of the price range but all equally enjoyable. Here, I discuss some of the fantastic ideas for making most of the cultural venues in the colder and darker nights.

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Firstly, one of my dear friends was visiting London and asked us to see the satirical cabaret ‘Fascinating Aida’ which was being shown live at the National Theatre on the Southbank. I had no idea that the show has been touring since 1983 and has a dedicated following around the country. It was also very funny, entertaining and heart-warming with all the lovely stories and anecdotes. My friend warned me that there will be a lot of swearing but mostly it was the swear word ‘Brexit’ that received the most laughs! I was pleased with that. It was also very amusing to hear the songs and engagement with a live audience in a fabulous venue on the Southbank. A great fun way to start the New Year 2020.

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The same weekend, I was able to fit in some local art landmarks at God’s Own Junkyard for the fabulous display of neon lights in their coffee shop and gallery. The William Morris Gallery also had the ‘Pioneer: William Morris and the Bauhaus’ exhibition on until recently. This was my first exposure to the Bauhaus, whereby the exhibition aimed to fully explore the common values and relationship between the English Arts and Crafts and the Bauhaus movements. The designs are truly simple, striking and recognisable. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to have the William Morris Gallery so close to where I live, where I can see the new temporary exhibitions, but also to visit time and time again the permanent William Morris exhibition.

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The next amazing event I went to see was the Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art’ held at the Barbican Centre with my information professional/librarian friends. It was nice to get ready early on a Saturday to catch the short train ride to the Barbican Centre (I hope to spend more time doing fun things there when I have free time). The exhibition was very interesting to see the global movement that explored the social and artistic role of cabarets, cafés and clubs focusing on global locations from New York to Tehran, London, Paris, Mexico City, Berlin, Vienna and Ibadan. It depicted time spanning the 1880s to the 1960s in various cities of the world also with the common dynamic themes and multi-faceted history of artistic production.

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It was a simultaneous avant-garde movement where there was art from a part of the world influencing another part, such as the Parisian theatrical Le Chat Noir show influencing the Chat Noir paintings that you may know. It really was an excellent exhibition and some of the highlights for me were the art pieces, Loie Fuller who was innovative in her dancing movement with fabric staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s – these were truly trail-blazing with the copyright of her dance and experiments in costume, choreography, light and movement.

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We treated ourselves to delicious cocktails on this particular night before the exhibition but I didn’t realise until I was in the exhibition that there was a recreated multi-coloured ceramic tiled bar installation in the exhibition of the Cabaret Fledermaus from Vienna (1907), designed by Josef Hoffmann for the Wiener Werkstätte.

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During this period simultaneously in New York, the literary and jazz scenes flourished and “co-mingled in the predominantly African American neighbourhood of Harlem, where black identity was re-forged and debated”. And so, there was also some live American jazz and spoken word that evening whilst we held our freshly made Vienna inspired Champagne cocktail!

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For me it was also great to see and feel the artistic carnival spirit of the cabaret and the clubs – from dance, costumes, music, spoken word, performance theatre, street theatre, drumming of Yoruba, silhouettes of dangling stencils and so much more! This is not only an enjoyable night…it was life-affirming stuff of the history of artistic practises and cultural exploration.  Even artistic expressions that were different in other regions, were happening and influencing each other demonstrating the common energy of the human condition and aspirations at a very turbulent time. I will remember this exhibition and the evening for a very long time!

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My next interesting event was to see a film for Federico Fellini’s 100 centenary celebrations at the BFI in London’s Southbank Centre (again!) for the film ‘La Dolce Vita’.  I obviously knew of the film and the director, but couldn’t miss the opportunity to see the bold original film on the big screen at the BFI cinema. It truly was another avant-garde art from a period of the most iconic and cliché films on Italian life,  highlighted by the neorealism of the film movement for its time. It was also interesting to follow the life of a journalist from his own life with his encounters with all the other people he is observing. There were highs and lows, happiness and sadness, fun and fear. I thought it was very cleverly filmed, and love the crisp and familiar scenes of Italian life. I am also hoping to see ‘Amarcord’ in a couple of weeks too but this really was a true appreciation of an excellent, avant-garde and innovative filmmaker.

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And as if it couldn’t get more interesting…I went to the BFI Archive in Berkhamsted for a tour with other British Library staff. It was interesting to see the archives, film restoration, editing, and machinery but also to hear about the various items, services and content that they store and conserve. It was amazing to know that they also keep commercial news and broadcasting (including advertisements). I believe the BBC has its’ own archive. We were very lucky to be shown around by their knowledgeable staff, meet the teams and also to see some of the ephemera ranging from film such Kes, Star Wars script, and artists such as Derek Jarman and Ken Loach. The BFI is where all good films go, and the archive is the equivalent to moving image heaven.

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The month ended on a high note with evening tea at the Savoy in London. I have been meaning to go for 20 plus years, although I have been to a ball a few years ago. I certainly loved the flavours of the handmade sandwiches and teacakes with Champagne and splendid tea. It was a special treat and I enjoyed the art deco interiors in a very chilled ambience. My friends and I didn’t realise that there was going to be a pianist and a jazz band playing beautiful music – so that was an extra bonus. Instead of staying a couple of hours, we stayed longer for about 4-5 hours! The venue is such a great attraction still and was known for creating a place with ‘stardust’ by theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte being influenced by celebrities, royalty, leading actresses and opera singers of the time.  D’Olyly Carte wanted to keep that sparkle and it certainly still maintains its’ shine today.

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There are a few more January celebrations like Galette du Rois for Epiphany, and a British Library tour for SLA Europe I did with my colleague Neil, which was rounded off in the pub – both events were also nice get-togethers.

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As the dark and cold nights as here to stay for a few more weeks, it has been a pleasure to spend time in a usually uneventful January doing all these wonderful and entertaining things with dear friends, contacts and family. However, I do feel that it has been a very positive and busy start to 2020, and with more activities, I have planned for this year…it will certainly be a show and will keep me busy. Do come back here to see what action I am up to!

A Christmas Carol – Dickens’ Classic December story

‘I wish to be left alone’ said Scrooge. Since you ask me what I wish, gentleman that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry’. – A Christmas Carol

Ebenezer Scoorge is a miser and Christmas-hating protagonist in the Victorian book by Charles Dickens called ‘A Christmas Carol’. If you don’t already know the story, we have a classic tale of someone lacking in kindness, which is even harsher when it is told to us during the festive season of goodwill and good tidings to all men. Dickens created a character of pity, scorn and loneliness, but also one where he is able to tease out compassion and redemption by the end of the story on Christmas Eve. The themes of this story are in the forefront of my thoughts this festive season, but also due to my participation in a local pantomime run by local people for the community in early December.

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Charles Dickens wrote the book in under six weeks in 1843, which was then published in time for Christmas. The novel gives us an insight into the poverty and urban living conditions in the Victorian ages. It is reported that Dickens was horrified after reading the government report: The Parliamentary Commission on the Employment of Women and Children which showed the horrific conditions in factories. Dickens was moved after reading the report and visited similar poor conditions in Manchester. The result was the idea to write ‘A Christmas Carol’, and the most he felt he could do was to make the horror of the report more known by writing a story… “Something that would strike the heaviest blow in my power”. This was the conception of his now renowned timeless social and moral human story of ‘A Christmas Carol’.

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“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” – A Christmas Carol

I remember seeing on television the story in a film of Scrooge as a child in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970/80s. I even remembered miserly persons called a “Scrooge”, and so the story has a wider readership and context than a Christmas story. However, the book was suggested a couple of years ago for our book club and therefore I was happy to finally read this classic story. I didn’t realise the meaning of the simple anti-Christmas term “Bah Humbug!” until I read ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The other characters in the book are interesting and add the element of wonder and awe to what is essentially a ghost story – the business partner Jacob Marley, the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future, the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim are like a conscience for the mean, bitter and solitary Scrooge. The spirits take Scrooge on a journey through his sad life and display his obsession with money and callousness, but also with some remedial twists like Bob Cratchit still toasting to Scrooge although he is a mean and demanding employer. The spirits are there to have Scrooge’s life flash by him highlighting his wrongdoings, but also the spirit of the future brings the perceived truth of this own demise…and death should he not change his wicked ways. This is just my short synopsis but ‘A Christmas Carol’ has the recurring theme of compassion and redemption that can help us to lead better lives, especially in a Christmas story during the wintery December month.

 

This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!” – A Christmas Carol

There is a lot written about the book and I am lucky to stumble upon a whole page dedicated to it on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website here. There is much to learn from the book about the historic Victorian way of life, the issues faced with publishing the first copy, and the importance of the book in cultural terms. It is just as popular as it was then as it is now!

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Dickens apparently was not protected by copyright laws, as there was no copyright legislation at the time to protect creative works. His novel was copied and performed by theatres within weeks, and there were various versions of the story being circulated at the time. It is mentioned in this Osgoode Law School blog post that he was annoyed but also one of the first advocating for copyright laws to protect creative works. You can also see how profitable the show was for its’ time by the Theatre playbills, which are available to view digitally. What is remarkable to this day is the beautiful illustration that were commissioned and created by John Leech in the first version of the book. They are still splendid and are able to light up social media to this day. Like Dickens’ story itself, these playbills and illustrations are available for reuse without fear of copyright infringement. I do hope he was able to get some financial benefits at the time for his work.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!” He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again. “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew.  “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”

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It has been an extra special experience this month to be involved in a pantomime of ‘A Christmas Carol’ with a local volunteer group, Panda Pantomime Productions. Pantomime has a long history of fun and informal theatre. This year we aimed to have four performances on the streets and in local venues – I only took part initially as a payback to Tom, who had helped me with fundraising musical entertainment in the past. I was happy for him to ask me to host the pantomime in my neighbourhood but didn’t expect to actually take part in it!. We started rehearsing about eight weeks ago to a very uninspiring ready-made script but thanks to the creative writing skills of Theresa – she was able to adapt the story to our times, local area and topical issues that we can all relate to. Luckily there are no copyright issues too! In the end, I am really proud of being able to participate in one of the highlights of my year.

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We had brilliantly engaged audiences, both children and adults, and lots of great feedback and fundraising at the performances. Local businesses donated raffle prizes, the council gave us a little support, venues opened their doors to us, and a big thanks to Audi Car Showroom in Chingford for their donations and time given by dedicated staff in the pantomime. It was a great way to challenge my non-existent acting experience and also to get to know a whole new group of lovely people. I was able to live, breathe and absorb the true story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a contemporary setting.

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‘The Christmas Carol’ is one of the stories that were being shown as Pantomime across the country when I checked on Twitter. Pantomime is a great way to experience theatre in the colder months of the year and is great to keep the venues profitable – it is reported that 2.7 million tickets were sold annually (BBC Source). I also still have much admiration for the team at PwC who started their corporate pantomime in the 1980s and still put it on annually by their staff, for their staff and communities. Over the years, I have also attended a few excellent Pantomimes at the Hackney Empire, where you are able to get value for money with great actors in a fabulous historic East End theatre.

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This December, in classic coincidence, the BBC aired on the run-up to Christmas the screening of a three-part episode of ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was great to compare it to the books, and also our low-budget version in pantomime. I liked it all the same and it was extra interesting to see all the characters played in different ways by professional actors, but also to a bigger budget with special effects, elaborate costumes, makeup and in Dickensian architectural scenes in London. The use of a mixed-race family for the Cratchits, contemporary issues and dark atmosphere created a lot of conversation on social media. I only recently realised that there is apparently a good version of this classic story by the makers of the Muppet Show. Perhaps I can look at that version another time.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” – A Christmas Carol

800px-The_Last_of_the_Spirits-John_Leech,_1843

And so with this moral tale, there is a spiritual conversion in the ending with Scrooge finding a second chance having examined ‘an intimate inspection of his soul’…bringing about regret and redemption for his past misdemeanours and miserliness. In the month of December, this Dickensian story will be around for a long time yet to entertain and warn us of the human condition. It is a great reminder that it is best to live in the present with goodwill, compassion and good cheer to others. This is a festive happy ending that will guide us in whatever time lies ahead.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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2020 Vision – looking at the past, present and future

As we get closer to the year 2020 and the closing of the last decade, I have been looking back but also thinking of the years ahead. It has been a decade of great change on the political, social, technological and human landscape reflecting on what is going on in the world. There have been numerous highs and lows as expected in such a long period. The present is grounding us to what is happening now but there is bound to be a wonder with what is ahead when we look at New Year’s number ‘Twenty Twenty’ – 2020. We even have to get used to saying, writing, hearing and seeing it. This blog post gives me the opportunity to reflect, adapt and anticipate what trends may be coming our way.

Past, present and future: it makes it easier for me to look at this in these three categories to clarify what this means, mostly for my own self-awareness. However when I started researching this topic, I quickly learnt that it is an analytical and forecasting technique that is also being using to show how quickly the world is moving on major issues for example sustainability, climate change and technology due to changes, innovation and higher levels of disruptions. In my busy personal and professional life – there are great experiences and photos for me to share these three timeframes with you here.

 

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The Past

“My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step,

they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.”
― William Golding

The last decade has seen a lot of changes for me professionally.   I was working at City Hall in 2010 with changes already happening with the arrival of the dire austerity plans hitting libraries and other public services across the United Kingdom. I hung on with our team to our jobs until early 2012 right on the cusp of the start of the Olympics. There was so much anticipation and preparation on the one hand with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but then we were dropped like hot potatoes to be made redundant and disbanding of services. The heartache of seeing colleagues lose their job in the heart of London with the Olympics which was in our breath and bloodstream was very hard to get over but we survived.

We were able to experience sadly one of the defining moments of the austerity decade that thousands of people have to endure. Some of us are not better off financially and thankfully for the support of family – we are able to manage. This first-hand experience is only the tip of the iceberg of what austerity really meant for basic infrastructure to people’s health, well-being, opportunities, education, public provision (no police station with the increased crime) and degeneration of libraries in the UK. I know some of the stronger survived but it certainly wasn’t fair for many people and this is with the benefit of hindsight. I also had people cut me off on social media when I left City Hall but most importantly the ones who mattered…stayed with me. I knew this would happen from my experience in the 2000s. I was just waiting for it to happen as an ever-present information professional.

 

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Eventually I was employed again at the British Library and this has been one of the highlights of the early 2010s. I have grown and developed in many new areas but I was also able to use the experience I have built up over many years. I don’t feel so odd when I have to use old and new information and library skills. It also helps when I see the past brought to the present in exhibitions, collections and digitally in the libraries and museums world. This month I visited the London Metropolitan Archives and the British Library’s exhibition on Buddhism – and you will get this point.

 

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We have also seen a lot of changes on the regeneration of my local area in the last ten years and it was one of the defining eras of new volunteering and community activism for the neighbourhood and me. Due to having free time due to redundancy, I was able to take part in the Street Party to celebrate the London Olympics in 2012…but then I never stopped!!! Due to my amazing neighbours and community spirit, we have been able to put on 8 fabulous street parties, poetry events, book clubs, Christmas parties, use social media, promote civic activism for local issues, and look after our community with great camaraderie. We literally look out for our neighbours and neighbourhood, such as creating What’s App groups and social media accounts for all of this!

 

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My neighbourhood has changed from a sleepy suburban town to a buzz hive of activity. There are negatives for this – such as Anti-Social Behaviour (ASBOs), drug dealing, professional beggars and high levels of litter. However, I was able to push myself to new activities such as writing basic poetry, organising Spring-cleaning, starting guerrilla gardening and this winter I am participating in my first pantomime in ‘A Christmas Carole’ by Charles Dickens. This was also my inspiration for writing this blog post looking at the past, present and future!

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A Christmas Carol

I was also able to do a lot more volunteering for my profession with SLA Europe and stopped being Fundraising Chair for The Lloyd Park Children’s Charity in 2016 after 12 years. I will look back at the last decade with fondness for the new and exciting things I learnt, the new experiences I gained and also the fabulous time I spent with great people and loved ones. The holidays and travels are always a great highlight in this enormous world and are entrenched in my memories of the past.

 

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The Present

“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”
― George Harrison

As in LIVE in the moment of now, it is both exhilarating as well as concerning. All the big topics I can honestly think about presently are Brexit, Climate Change and much progress already made is being damaged! Most things in my life are stable but there are still everyday worries and stresses that make me wonder what the hell is going on. Just look at some of our media and politicians! Politics is affecting all of us at present but they are very disruptive and move swifter than the previous decade. This could be a result of social media, but also the volume increase, manipulation and incensed use of mainstream media that is used to polarise us. It seems to be an on-going battle with new life and professional challenges such as data protection, fake news, privacy, racism, bullying, and various negative broadcasting. Information certainly is more intense with some people probably rightfully switching off from all forms of media. I do think that presently social media is still a very good facility for communication, and the world is generally a better place for it. Politics will affect us all and is currently in an awful state but we are more engaged regardless with an opportunity to share our views, voice our concerns and opinions with the people we want too online and offline.

 

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Climate change and sustaining our planet are hot topics that are right up the agenda in the last years and especially the last few months. We have seen young Greta Thunberg mobilise children and adults across this great big old world for environmental concerns and activism. We also all know about Extinction Rebellion. Food, travel, air quality, poverty, homelessness, diversity and inclusion etc are all various topics where work is still in progress. There are good days and bad days for all of these issues, and like so, we have to live in the moment but also find ways to make good choices that will sustain us as well as our fragile planet and environment. It’s only a few years ago we implemented the plastic bags ban, saw more of the reusable cup and ‘single use plastic’ become a no-go. Positive policy and behaviour change are possible and we should not give up!

 

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It is not all depressing in the present, I still find ways to keep my positivity flowing by exploring the new, interesting events and shows in the city. I love that you also see all the ‘live’ moments people are having around you on their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Yes, the present is not perfect but somewhere in this world, the sun is shining and a new day is dawning. I am also very grateful for every new day that I am alive to be with my family and friends in the present.

 

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The Future

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.”
― Zadie Smith

As we creep into 2020, it is great to know that some things will always remain the same but it is obvious that there will be new developments and ways of living that we will adopt and adapt in our lives. After all, 2020 is just a number created to represent time.

I am certainly not a clairvoyant with a crystal ball and will not predict the next day, much less the next decade. However, this is what scientific, evidence-based and good research is able to do for us. Trends and forecasting are used all the time to help us plan and prepare what may or may not become a reality. I have the privilege and access to authoritative published research in my role as an information professional, and therefore I am able to research very serious topics that will have an impact on all of us.

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I recently popped into the busy technology department of Selfridges when I went to collect an online order that I couldn’t find in local shops. Seeing all the smart technology is a great eye-opener (pardon the pun!). There are innovations and inventions that are here already and there are more to come on the horizon. Wearable technology is here and according to Mintel market research on “Wearable Technology 2019” – “There has been an increase in ownership of all wearable devices, with the most significant jump being in the adoption of smart ear-buds. As a result of the increasing popularity of these products, more and more manufacturers are offering their versions. Meanwhile, fitness bands/sports watches continue to be the wearable that consumers are most likely to own”. Consumers are also using it for controlling smart home devices, making contactless payments, monitoring security, social media, fitness etc. The smart glasses were certainly a new way to see and interact with things.

 

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One of the burning issues is consumption of natural resources and the environment. There are questions on how can we make this world more sustainable and ethical in our policies, businesses and our own personal responsibility. GlobalDataOnline has their great Trendsight predictions and analysis to tell us about the MegaTrends that will affect us all regardless if we are generations from: Baby boomers to iGeneration. In the report ‘Trendsight overview: Sustainability and Ethics – Meeting social and environmental challenges amid growing populations and energy brands’, these megatrends highlighted are: Social Responsibility, Ethical Wellbeing, Fairly Traded, Created Fairly, Ethical Luxury, Localism, Trust and Transparency, Resource Scarcity and Environmental Responsibility. These are all great topics that make my heart sing! The same report looks in great detail at the past, present and future trends. One of the great sector examples with the changes we have seen in the last few years is plastic pollution and recycling which concludes that: “in the past five years, recycling schemes were being used by several types of retail outlets, and will remain a crucial consideration for retailers in future. Retailers at present are more prominently shifting away from the use of plastic, while innovative recycling schemes will propel into the mainstream five years or so in the future”. Do make some time to look at these reports and you will be inspired or in-the-know on what is in store for the future.

 

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My own personal view, simply and most importantly, of the future is that I want my loved ones to be happy and healthy. I also want this clarity and vision for humanity and the Earth. I know there will be developments in technology and gains in progress with living standards but there is so much work still to collaborate and work on together as so many people are outside of these acceptable levels, struggling with being happy and healthy. I am not able to control this but in my own way, step by step, little by little, I can only hope that we keep this beautiful planet and its’ people safe and well for years to come…and certainly to 2030. Ask yourself too what you want for the future.

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Little Italy – Quarters of the world for Italian settlers

Italians have been travelling out of Italy for centuries and there is evidence from the Romans in the UK, the medieval ages, the 19th and 20th century to present day. You may know that I am married to an Italian and therefore I have been meaning to share on here all the fascinating and significant endearing stories of Italians who have emigrated from their native countries for centuries to explore, find opportunities and set up life in new and distant lands. They have travelled to places as far as the USA, Canada, Africa, Argentina, Brasil, Australia and other closer parts of Europe. My relatives migrated to Bedford in the 1950s, therefore I have heard first-hand stories and have personal experience of Italian immigrants in Bedford. Italian immigration to Bedford began in 1951 and continued until the end of the 1960s. Currently, Bedford still has the largest Italian community in the United Kingdom. With all these Italian communities scattered across the globe, there are multiple ‘Little Italy’ in quarters where the Italian diaspora and settlers now live.

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There are other communities across the globe and I am happy to feel connected to the diaspora when those opportunities arise.  I am unable to cover everything in this blog post but here are the main points and highlights for the very special Italian immigrant communities I know about personally. There are two distinct phases of Italian immigration to the United Kingdom – the first stage at the turn of the 19th century and the second stage in the years immediately after World War II when the mass immigration started.

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The first set of Italian settled in London and Manchester, and formed the famous communities of ‘Little Italy’, especially around the Clerkenwell, Ancoats and Soho areas. These areas thrived primarily thanks to the catering trade and there is still evidence and influence of that today. It was noted that they had a padrone in Britain to act as a go-between to help them with work, food and accommodation for the first two or three years after arrival. Eventually, they worked up the social classes from organ grinders to street musicians, skilled statuette makers and semi-skilled craftsmen by the mid-1850s. By the 1880s onwards, they were able to move into skilled craftwork catering and their own businesses such as selling ice cream. Some famous names I am aware of are Manze’s for Pie and Mash shops, and Rossi for ice cream. It is reported by the turn of the century they had their own Italian school, the Italian Church of St Peter’s and other Italian landmarks. There is a great article on the Italian diaspora by National Geographic here.

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After World War II, the United Kingdom needed labourers to help rebuild its’ economy and many other areas were in desperate need of new labour. One of the explanations I have read is that Italy was overpopulated and there were high levels of poverty and lack of employment opportunities so there were government policies to actively encourage emigration to new lands for opportunities and a better life. In ‘Hidden Voices – Memories of First Generation Italians in Bedford’, there are real-life stories from first-generation Italians living in Bedford which states: “The south was grossly underdeveloped and overpopulated. This had been aggravated by the fascist laws that curtailed even internal migration, let alone external movement of populations. The Italian Government was at a loss as to how to solve the immediate problem. It was estimated that at least 350000 people per year would have to emigrate for five years to alleviate, at least in part, the situation”. This is covered in some detail in books which I have used for research, and online resources such as ‘Building Italian Communities: caterers, industrial recruits and professionals’ by Our Migration Story.

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It is recorded that “a major inter-governmental initiative had led to an agreement between the British Ministry of Labour and the Italian Government, and a bulk recruitment scheme offering jobs to a large number of Italian men and women had been set up in various industries where shortages have arisen”. There were also a few thousand young Italian women who went to work in the Lancashire cotton mills. Other jobs were offered in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Doncaster and Peterborough. The most significant flow of these migrants arrived in the summer of 1951 and they were allocated to Bedfordshire Brick factories and in particular to the world’s largest Marston Valley Bricks Company in Stewartsby, which had been faced with ‘a grave shortage of English labourers’. The brickworks still now stands as a museum.

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Bedford

After World War II, like my own West Indian ancestors in the Caribbean who were indentured labourers and entrepreneurs, the move to new lands may have only been a temporary arrangement that ended up being for longer. ‘A sociolinguistic insight into the Italian Community in the UK: Workplace language as an identity market’ by Siria Guzzo states that: “the main reason why these people came to Britain was obviously not the weather; they migrated to escape abject poverty in most cases and hoped to make a decent living for themselves and their families’’. There was the chain reaction of the migrant travelling back and forth to see the extended family between Italy and Britain but not often. Most of the immigrants were initially granted four years permission to work: “They signed an agreement to stay for four years with their employer, unless they wished to return to Italy before that. Many didn’t like it here and returned home” (Hidden Voices). I have heard that the work was very heavy duty and some of the conditions were very demanding. The work was not easy for those who had never worked in an industrial environment to adapt. However, there remained an abundance of work after this post-war period and some immigrants were able to move on to other employment if they were not satisfied. The legacy of these working contracts is that thousands of Italians remained.  Bedford is one of the largest and most important Italian communities in the UK, and they make up 28% of the diverse population in Bedford.

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Bedford is also a special place as it was a market town, beautiful river, park with nice countryside that was not far from London and also already had other nationalities settled in the areas such as West Indian, Polish and Irish communities. It was a melting pot for a new post-war Britain and you can still see evidence of that today.

Mainly men came first to work and stayed in lodgings. Later on, the ones who stayed sent for their families to come to Britain. There were cases where there were children left behind for a number of years. When the women came, they too started working to help with the cost of homes. It was not unusual for several families to share homes until they were able to save up for their own homes. “By the late 1950s, however, the hard-working Bedford Italians had saved enough money to begin buying their own property, especially in the areas of Queen’s Park and Castle Road where the terraced houses were situated. By continuing to work tirelessly and never wasting their hard-earned money, they began to settle and finally prosper” (Italians and Italians in Britain: A History).

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In the 1960s, there was a focal point with raising money for a Roman Catholic Church in Bedford for the Italian Citizens. And it was not until recently I found out that the church of Santa Francesca Cabrini in Bedford was specifically named after Saint Francesca Cabrini as she is the patron Saint of Immigrants. Mother Francesca as she is known in the USA is revered for her work in New Orleans and New York with Italian immigrants, children and the churches. She was the first American canonised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. She also has a unique perspective for her time in her letters written from her travels and collaboration between Italy and the USA.

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In Bedford, the Fathers Scalabrini was instrumental in organising and getting donations for the building of the church. Like the St Peter’s Church in London, the building of the church was major event which involved all of the Italians in Bedford. It is recalled: “Considering that these Italian Immigrants came from many different parts of Southern Italy, some from rural areas of Calabria, some from towns near Naples or from Sicily, all speaking different dialects, with various traditions and ways of life – that was quite an achievement.  But religion and the building of their own church was important to all.  Everyone contributed to raise funds to build the church.  The church was seen by all the Italians in Bedford as theirs and a very important centre for the community.  It was consecrated on March 28th 1965 ” (Hidden Voices).

Over the years, I have also been in the church for regular service, at religious festivals but also for christenings, weddings and funerals. It is definitely a focal point and an important part of the Italian community. The Italians also have their own Italian Embassy/Consulate in Bedford due to the sheer numbers of the diaspora in the town.

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It was also a linguistic phenomenal to have various dialects and cultural traits as the immigrants were from other regions in Italy who had all congregated in one location in this strange land. This is not dissimilar to the various Windrush islanders who came from the West Indies meeting in Britain with their own dialects and accents.  For the older generation, some went along to English language classes or picked it up after a number of years in what is termed as ‘survival English’.  They are also known to switch in between two languages plus their dialects. It is a family joke when some of the phrases in Italian are mixed with English. From the early days, the workers also received newspapers or reading materials in Italian. The families with younger generations obviously became bilingual as the main language was Italian in the home and English in school.

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There were instances of prejudice, racial abuse and biases that was more rampant in the 1950s and 1960s than in the later years. Over time, the Italians integrated into British society and there is community cohesion…but also hung on to their rich traditions and culture. It was also possible for them to travel to Italy to keep those connections unlike, for example, Italian diaspora in further lands like Argentina or the USA. My husband grew up in Bedford in the 1960s and 1970s with all the swinging British popular culture and subcultures that were making the UK a vibrant place at the time. However, he also has the benefit of being exposed to authentic Italian culture and relatives when the family went on summer holiday trips to Italy.

The Italians have also built various Italian clubs which they still use for events and social activities such as New Year’s Eve and their ever-important football matches by the Italian Football teams. My own relatives also organised and took part in a football team that played other regional Bedfordshire teams. There are many articles written about Italian football fans in Bedford who understandably will always support the Azzurris. The World Cup wins in 1982 and 2006 have both been major events when the Italians have gathered en masse with patriotic flags and celebration in the town square. I think these were other defining events for the community as would be expected for any expat or migrant community supporting their nation’s sporting heritage. They also host an Italian festival in the town square to celebrate everything Italian.

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A lot of the Italians in all of the phases have been entrepreneurial in their outlook and making it work here in the UK. The Italians set up craft shops, bars, entertainment venues and other businesses. Food is a massive part of any Italian’s life and so some of the obvious businesses and entrepreneurial trait were to go into the catering business. “It is believed that the ability shown in running successful ethnic restaurants, coffee shops and ice-cream bars is thanks to family cohesion. Italian families in Bedford are bound together by kinship networks and their community represents a sort of extended family”. It is very easy to get Italian food stock now but it was not always as easy in the past. My relatives couldn’t even find olive oil, fresh Italian vegetables (e.g. aubergines, peppers, artichokes) and other supplies in the shops when they first moved to the UK. It is a million times better now for food supplies (but you honestly still get the best ingredients in sunny Italy). Food is still central to family gatherings and social events but the Italians in Bedford probably would try other world cuisines due to multicultural influences as compared to Italians who live in Italy. The Italians have been entrepreneurial in the various corners of the world and the ubiquitous pizza is a great metaphor for their food culture. There is a great article on the Europeana website on pizza.

There is so much to tell and so little time on here as there are decades of stories and adaption to cover in a few lines.  I am grateful, respectful and proud of the Italian heritage that is now part of my own story and life.

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This is the perpetual story of immigrants and also the need for those wishing, hoping, trying and fulfilling the dreams and opportunities that they have when they leave their own countries to a ‘better land’. I have heard these real-life stories many many times and I never get bored with them as I find them adventurous and heart-warming.  They are also part of my heritage  – Italian, Indian, West Indian and British. It also reminds me deeply and on another level to my own West Indian heritage and ancestors. Human Migration is not a new phenomenon and there seem to be so many political, social and cultural factors on its’ prevalence in the past, and will in years to come. Most migrants actually contribute to the lands they move to and the Italians in Bedford had created a very special part of Britain that will always have strong and enriched links to Italy and Europe. Since the 1950s the Italian spirit, close-knit community and way of life live on in each generation…hopefully in the future too. The community have also integrated to a very acceptable level and are able to enjoy the best of both worlds.

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