* David Dimbleby describes Tony Benn’s oratory style as “mesmerising.” (BBC Radio 4 5.00 news, Friday 14 March)
Sunday, March 23, 2014
On the morning of Friday 14 March I experienced one of those moments that will never fade from my memory. Cup of tea in hand, I was just about to settle into the armchair next to the radio when a sudden change in tone in the Radio 4 news presenter’s voice caught my attention. She paused momentarily and then solemnly announced the death of Mr Tony Benn. A wave of blunt pain rose up through me. Putting the tea aside I breathed deeply and the pain shifted into the deadweight that is grief.
Unlike Mr Benn’s bereaved family and friends, I can’t say that the loss of this gifted politician and inspirational leader is personal, but it feels like that. It feels as if part of me has been torn away, leaving behind an emptiness that has persisted since the news of his death. It is true that we have lost a unique and historical figure, a “national treasure” as he was called in his latter days, but it is largely nostalgia which explains my reaction. His importance for me dates back to my student days, when politics and protest formed as much a part of my education as my studies did. Again and again Tony Benn gave voice, as eloquently and passionately as only he knew how*, to the socialist politics I believed in. His words brought clarity and conviction to the muddled left-wing discourse in my head, and he became central to many of the causes I supported.
That was the era of the Sandinista revolution and the spread of Euro communism, when it made sense to hitch-hike to Greenham Common and show solidarity with the women camping there in protest against the Cruise missiles base. It made sense to walk in the People’s March for Jobs, to join the campaign in favour of the miners’ strike and to have fun at the Marx with Sparks festival in London. Crucially, the music scene caught the mood of the times and brought the language of class politics right into mainstream media. Without bands like the Jam and the Clash the struggle might have been grimmer; it wasn’t. Their energy infused the potential for change with a momentum that I still recall thirty years later.
The campaigns and the music were all very well, but without credible and articulate leaders with access to power the Left risked losing focus. For many of us Tony Benn provided that focus. Of course, as the “figurehead of the Lunatic Left,” as he was labelled by the tabloid press, Mr Benn was repeatedly ridiculed and vilified. This was a man who was elected to the UK parliament no less than 15 times, who formed part of the Labour cabinet and very narrowly missed being elected leader of the party in 1981.** His voters, constituents and a significant section of the Labour Party certainly didn’t share the tabloid view; they had sufficient trust in the man to elect him into positions of power. By a tiny percentage, Tony Benn failed to become Labour leader in 1981 and possibly prime minister thereafter. The opportunity came and was lost.
Those years, when socialist politics were alive and vibrant, have been eclipsed by the rise of Thatcherism, the demise of trade union influence and the growth of a society in which greed is exalted and encouraged. This is the UK today. It wasn’t always like this and for those of us who recall a time when politics and policies were different, our memories, and our lives too, are that little bit lonelier now that Tony Benn has gone.
TONY BENN 1925 – 2014
* David Dimbleby describes Tony Benn’s oratory style as “mesmerising.” (BBC Radio 4 5.00 news, Friday 14 March)
** Denis Healey won the contest by 1 vote (Healey 50.4 / Benn 49.6)
Monday, March 17, 2014
One Sunday afternoon many years ago, a friend drove me over to south Belfast, where there is a supermarket specialising in Asian produce. He was confident that the trip would be an antidote to my disgruntlement with the uninspiring choice and mediocre quality of fresh fruit and vegetables in my area. As we were searching for a parking space in the terraced street closest to the supermarket I noticed scores of Chinese couples and families wheeling heavily burdened trolleys through the mizzle in the direction of their cars. Until that afternoon I’d only been vaguely aware that Chinese people lived in Belfast. Apparently, there were over 7,000* living in Northern Ireland at that time, which made them the largest non-European ethnic group within the wider population. My friend and I wondered where they all lived, what jobs they did and why they had come to Belfast, a city from which so many of the local population had fled during “The Troubles”. Where did the Chinese fit in here; were they anomalies in a terrain demarcated into orange and green, or red, white and blue? Were they “invisible people” I wondered, a shadow community in a population of nationalists and unionists?
More recently I’ve come to re-examine these questions. My friendship with a young Chinese couple, who have come to Belfast since the demise of the conflict, has given me an insight into how they perceive the challenges of building a life for themselves here. Far from being “shadows”, their forthrightness and resilience has a freshness that contrasts with the general weariness that seems to have fallen upon much of the population, defeated by a war and straitjacketed by an economic recession.
Steven arrived in Belfast ten years ago from the north of China and his wife, Judy, finally joined him three years later. By that time Steven had acquired a partnership in a city centre restaurant, a business which has become stable and prosperous. Management of the business takes up much of his time, but Steven is also very much “hands on” in the kitchen. He is a master chef and twice he has won first prize in competitions at the Chinese New Year Festival.
For her part, Judy has made it a priority to learn English. She spent three years enrolled on a full-time course for international students at Queen’s University and is now working toward a degree in art and design. She is a gifted artist and wishes she could devote more time to developing her creativity. But time has been at a premium since two-year-old Michael was born and assignments are often completed after midnight. Still, she knows there will be more opportunities to study when Michael starts play school.
Judy has mixed feelings about her son’s future on this side of the world, “I worry about him, about what his life will be like here. He’s a kind and gentle child and it may not be easy to find kindness out on the street.” Last year, a bus driver refused to let Judy board with the pram. She was surprised and hurt when this happened because she could see there were only about half a dozen passengers and a sole pram on the bus, so there was plenty of room. That evening, a friend (also Chinese and also a mother) explained this was not uncommon and advised her not take it too personally, “and I can’t afford to, can I?” she adds with a shrug.
That incident occurred while Michael was still a baby. A few weeks ago, during lunch in one of the more exclusive stores in Belfast, Steven took his son over to look at the toys so that Judy and I could chat. Five minutes later he returned, saying that he had been “scolded” for allowing Michael to run up and down the aisle. I caught Judy’s eye and she murmured, “I think it’s only Chinese children who are not allowed to run here”. At this point Michael dropped his toy car, so I picked it up and told him to be careful. “Be careful;” he mimicked my pronunciation perfectly with a heart-melting smile, mirrored by his mother, delighted that another new word has been added to her son’s lexicon of English.
From the outset has Steven impressed upon Judy how important it is to integrate here, to follow norms. He felt uncomfortable when she wandered around the city taking photos for her art and design course, perhaps drawing attention to herself; not keeping a low profile. Developing talent often involves taking risks with new endeavours. Whereas most Chinese students study management or business, Judy points out that in choosing art and design, “I was already way off the beaten track as far as Chinese immigrants are concerned.”
The couple have achieved much in the years that have passed since Steven’s arrival in Belfast with some savings and just a few words of English; the point of disembarkation for a new life. Now they live in a detached house, outside of which their respective cars are parked, a testament to the double shifts and frequent seven-day weeks Steven works. Back in China he’d heard that this is a country where hard work and effort equals results. It is precisely this, the opportunity to make a success of life which Steven most values about this society.
He denies it is work which is causing him to look so weary. In his own words he tells me about an incident that occurred a few days ago in the restaurant. Two drunks entered and said some “dirty sentences” to the young Chinese waitress. One of them punched Steven’s brother when he intervened on her behalf. CCTV captured the scene and a local taxi driver followed the pair when they left; it was thanks to his help the police were able to initiate a criminal investigation. Neither Steven nor Judy is hopeful of a prosecution. Judy adds that they already spend too much time in their solicitor’s office and the outcomes are usually very disappointing because the cases are rarely taken seriously.
Drunks demanding free food or menacing staff are a persistent late-night hazard in the restaurant. On one occasion a couple of youths, high on drugs or alcohol, were behaving aggressively and Steven was endeavouring to persuade them to leave; just then a customer took a stand, a tall stand, for when he rose from his seat, he was about 6’7’’. He lifted the pair by the collar, one with each hand, and threw them into the street. “Chinese can’t do this because we would either be battered senseless or find ourselves in front of a court.”
Just recently Steven was stopped and questioned at the same police road block for five consecutive days. On the fifth day, he challenged the officer, pointing out that as a Chinese man he was being repeatedly singled out while other drivers were being waved on. Steven asked for the officer’s name and number and told him he would be taking the matter further. “But I can’t, can I? I’ve got a business to run. It’s like Judy says, we already spend too much time with our solicitor”.
Last year Steven went to the City airport to collect Judy, who was arriving from China. He’d barely walked into the foyer when he was “pounced” on by a pair of plain clothes border officials. They demanded to see his passport, and when Steven pointed out that he no reason to carry it because he’d only come to collect his wife the pair went on the offensive. At this point Steven turned the tables on the officials and insisted on seeing their ID. In the end it was only with great reluctance that they accepted his driving licence as valid ID. The irony is that Steven is a UK citizen with a UK passport. That his oriental features and faltering English make him an easy target is not an unfamiliar scenario for him.
Whereas the police are more likely to be “polite” now in their dealings with Chinese, this was not always the case. Steven recalled an occasion when six people left the restaurant after a lavish meal without paying. Staff called the police and Steven managed to catch up with one of the group in a nearby street. When the officer arrived on the scene she asked him if “all this fuss” was about “a tip”. The same police woman witnessed Steven being punched and responded by giving his assailant a private “talking to” and allowing him to run off.
Judy was quick to add that, in general, most people are friendly. “We really appreciate that because when discrimination happens, we remind ourselves that the majority accept and welcome us. Last year our neighbours spent two hours helping Steven dig his car out of the snow. That is something we will never forget.”
Before leaving Steven and Judy’s home, I asked if they were familiar with the 1970’s series Kung Fu. We watched a scene in which the “Chinaman” Kwai Chang Caine literally turns the tables on his aggressors. My friends laughed but added “That is not Belfast.” They are right, the setting isn’t Belfast but the attitudes Caine battles against perhaps resonate with many Chinese here.
*According to the Chinese Welfare Association, the figure has grown to 12,000 - 15,000.