Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A very British cable

A gilded goose seems to have laid 250,000 golden eggs for investigative journalists at The Guardian, the London-based daily newspaper. 
   The United States Embassy in London's Grosvenor Square is the source of just 1,083 of the leaked classified cables sent from US embassies around the world. 
   Curiously, one of the leaked cables, reported by The Guardian's Robert Booth, harks all the way back to London's troubled summer and autumn of 1985. The then US Ambassador to Britain, Raymond George Hardenbergh Seitz, warned President's Reagan's administration in Washington about the violence erupting on the streets of London and other cities.
   Honolulu-born Seitz warned Washington that Britain might see further urban unrest in 1986. "We are likely to see more rioting ahead," wrote Seitz. "Dickens described the squalor, overcrowding and poverty in Britain's cities over a century ago," added Seitz. "What has changed is that the people affected are increasingly likely to be members of minority groups. "There are only 1 million blacks and browns in Britain...and by now half of these are British born. But their outsider status persists," cabled Seitz.
  At that time, I was a young journalist on the Caribbean Times weekly newspaper. I remember the tension of that period very well. Police relations with local Black people had reached an all-time low in the Handsworth and Lozells areas of Birmingham. 
Serious rioting and violence occurred on the ninth and tenth of September 1985. 
Two men died in a fire at a post office during the disorder.
   On 28th September, police raided a house in Brixton, south London. Mrs Cherry Groce, a Black mother, was shot and paralysed inside her home by a police officer. Violence between young people and police flared on Brixton's streets. I personally witnessed some of this violence and looting. Photo-journalist David Hodges, aged 29, died of injuries sustained during the rioting.  
   Just days later, on 5th October, four Tottenham police officers entered and searched the home of Mrs Cynthia Jarrett. During the search, Mrs Jarrett, also a Black woman, collapsed and died soon after. 
   Ferocious violence between police and young people erupted on Tottenham's sprawling Broadwater Farm Estate during the following night, 6th October. 
PC Keith Blakelock was killed. 
Police armed with plastic bullets and CS gas were deployed.
  Although Seitz's prediction of further violence in 1986 proved incorrect, his cable offers an enticing peek at a deep vat of US government fear and paranoia about Britain's internal class warfare and racism. Seitz knew the so-called 'special relationship' between the US and the UK had already been weakened by persistently popular protests against the siting of nuclear missiles at US Air Forces bases in Britain.
   Many working people in Britain perceived US industry mogul Ian MacGregor, appointed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the chairman of Britain's National Coal Board in 1983, as the "American butcher of British industry", particularly for his role in the bitter miners' strike of 1984-85. Ironically, although MacGregor cut his business teeth in US industry, he was born in Scotland.
   Yesterday (Monday, 29th November) I asked Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief at The Guardian, 'if Seitz's secret cable from London to Washington indicated a responsibility dutifully carried out by Thatcher's government to keep the US government closely informed about urban unrest and protests in Britain?'
We shouldn't hold our breath for his reply; no doubt, Rusbridger and his colleagues are very busy checking those cables.

Wikileaks, a 'whistleblowers website', leaked more than 251,287 classified 'secret' documents sent from US embassies around the world to The Guardian and other selected international media.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Sun, stone, glass and steel

The sun on the city cast a fine light. 
Brilliant November sunshine and a crisp blue winter sky glared at Londoners today (Friday, 26 November).  
But a brazen wind plummeted temperatures towards freezing. 
Londoners donned hats and scarves, braced against a predicted two weeks of snow and ice.
So, I hope you'll be warmed by my photographs of London landmarks taken between one o'clock and two-thirty this afternoon. 

Remember to click on the images to enlarge them.

The above photo shows the tower of St Dunstan in the East with its gleaming pinnacles, flying buttresses, ball and vane. I took the photo just around the corner from Idol Lane, London EC3.

The below photo shows how the Shard tower -'the city in the sky' - already dominates views from London's streets. I took this photo at the northern end of St Mary at Hill, EC3. (I'll feature the Shard in a separate post soon).

The next photo (below), taken from the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe, EC3, shows the church of St Andrew Undershaft in front of 30 St Mary Axe, otherwise known as the Swiss Re Building or the Gherkin. The 40-floor, 180 metres (591 feet) tower, was designed by Norman Foster and Ken Shuttleworth.

The photos below show the Lloyd's insurance building, designed by Richard Rogers, also on Leadenhall Street, EC3.

Even the steel, glass and the fellow in the elevator looked frozen.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010.

All photos copyright of Paul Coleman, London Features, November 2010. No reproduction without permission. Thank you.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Oranges and lemons, the bells of St Clement Danes

I'm walking, head down, lashed by Sunday afternoon rain, buffeted by a gusting November wind. An incessant spiral chiming of church bells lures me across the desolate street. I seek shelter beside St Clement Danes, an 'island' church in the middle of the Strand where Westminster greets the City of London.

The insistent bells peel relentlessly, mellifluously drowning out the rasp of a red double-decker bus - a number 23 - sloshing past the Royal Courts of Justice. Steamed windows conceal the driver. Lit up yet empty, the bus aquaplanes towards Fleet Street like an angry Mary Celeste on diesel.

I look up at the church tower, hoping to glimpse the swinging bells. I fully expect raindrops to splatter my face but I'm protected by a sullen coven of tall, dark, bare trees looming over the church. 
On one branch, two jet black crows stand side by side, like beady-eyed nightclub bouncers.
'You can't come in here, mate.'
- 'Your name ain't on the list.'

Cold and dripping, I defy the crows by pushing against the wooden glass panelled door. 
I step inside. The drama of the battered and whipped air outside evaporates as the church door shuts softly. The bells sound muffled too.

I walk through an inner doorway. A wide aisle lies before me, leading to an imposing altar and a dramatic stained glass window. My gaze is drawn through the semi-darkness towards a rack of small red candles. Tiny orange and lemon flames glimmer beside a pulpit hidden in deep shadow.

The church air, stilled by the stone walls and slate flooring, feels melancholy yet  distinguished, homely even. Danish settlers expelled by King Alfred (871-901) from the City of London built the original church of St Clement Danes. The Danes named the church after Clement, the Bishop of Rome, whom legend says Emperor Trajan ordered strapped to an anchor and lowered into the sea. 

St Clement Danes was re-consecrated as the central church of the Royal Air Force in 1958. Another air force - Hitler's Luftwaffe - had gutted the church with its fire-bombs dropped from London's hellfire skies in May 1941.

I shudder, sensing movement over my shoulder. I half-turn and see the shape of a man silhouetted against the shard of light stealing in through the front door.

I'd last clapped eyes on Ralph Straker twenty-five years ago. In those days, Ralph was a well-liked London community worker. Stout, dignified and proud, Ralph used to don a blaze red tunic, gold braid and coal black tails with shiny seams. He'd perform his duties as an accomplished Master of Ceremonies at flashy receptions and bow-tie dinners.

Ralph, still stout but slightly stooped, now helps out at St Clement Danes.
His dignified voice now carries a creaky quality. 
He doesn't look at me directly but focuses on the ground, listening intently. 
"Yes, the bells do sound lovely," agrees Ralph. "They practice on Sunday afternoons."

Ralph, a gentle soul, and I bid each other farewell. 
The names of over 150,000 men and women who died whilst serving in the RAF are recorded in St Clement Danes' Books of Remembrance.
Their kind and gentle qualities seem to have seeped into St Clement Danes' stone walls, slate floors and wood panels. The candles seem to breathe that gentility back into the church's air.

I feel a strong need to make some kind of gesture. 
I strike a match against a matchbox and light a candle. 
Carefully, I place the lit candle in the rack alongside its quietly and softly shimmering orange and lemon comrades.
The bells continue to chime, muffled now though, as if being rung at dusk from a hillside across a valley.
My mind now chants a refrain from an old nursery rhyme...
'Oranges and lemons, 
Say the bells of St Clement's..."
It's a refrain that's lain dormant in my mind since childhood.

My childhood, long gone, seems another world away.
Like this candle, life burns quickly, brightly - if I'm lucky.
Then, like a black crow rapidly vacating a branch in a tree, life vanishes.
Should I fear this rapid passage of time, of life being extinguished?
Perhaps, but not now, not in a place like St Clement Danes with its natural darkness quietly and softly illuminated by grace and tranquility.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010.

Candles in St Clement Danes. Click on this link for more information about the church.

Listen to the bells of St Clement Danes, as recorded on Sunday, 14 November 2010. 
Press the play button in Listen to London Features Audio (right).

Click on images to enlarge.

Photos and sound recording: Paul Coleman
Copyright in these words, photos and sound recording is Owned by Paul Coleman.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

No grave but the sea

I stood this Sunday morning in a small corner of London surrounded by twenty four thousand people. 

Nobody spoke. Rain fell steadily. Ink ran on sodden order of service leaflets.

The twenty four thousand souls were present  - literally - in name only. Their names solemnly studded the metal panels surrounding the Merchant Navy's Tower Hill World War II memorial.

Ship after ship, fishing boat after fishing boat, the torpedoed and sunken vessels on which these men and women served were scrolled around the walls in solemn alphabetical order.

Engraved on the Memorial's frontage, "The twenty four thousand of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets whose names are honoured on the walls of this garden gave their lives for their country and have no grave but the sea."

Three names stood embossed beneath the 'Andalucia Star', sunk by a German submarine in October 1942.
'Green, Lily A.
Harcourt R.
Nylander W.'
I've recalled their story in previous postings so my first ever visit to the memorial was overdue. 

Nearly twenty years ago, I visited the Arlington National Cemetary in Washington. I was  astonished. More than 300,000 people who lost their lives in America's wars are buried beneath its forest of small white headstones.

After that trip, I couldn't conceive how a single physical structure could symbolise the enormous loss and sacrifice and loss of life involved in war. 

Today, I stood corrected.
Trinity Square's sombre yet gracefully sculpted garden, aptly sited close to the Thames, stands as a precious memorial to the men and women who lost their lives trying to ensure vital food supplies reached war-ravaged Britain.

Currently serving Navy and merchant marine personnel gave a smart salute. Comrades, sons and daughters and grandchildren offered heartfelt prayers. This was a fitting 21st Century tribute to those lost souls with no grave but the sea. 

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010.

Photos: Paul Coleman

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Lest we forget - the Merchant Navy lifeline

True, Britain's 'Dig for Victory' campaign staved off the threat of starvation during World War II. This island nation grew only enough food to feed one in three of its 48 million people before 1939. 

Ten thousand square miles of land was "brought under the plough" during the conflict. Increased food production halved reliance on imports by 1945. But we mustn't forget food imports helped keep the people alive and well. 

Britain's Merchant Navy vessels carried 268,650,000 tons of imports to Britain between 1939 and 1945 - a vital lifeline. But the human cost of this lifeline proved enormous. 30,248 merchant navy sailors and fishing fleet crew members lost their lives when their ships carrying vital food and supplies to Britain were sunk by German battleships and submarines. 

Britain's merchant navy consisted of some 3,000 deep sea cargo ships and tankers and another 1,000 coasters when World War II broke out in 1939. An average of 2,500 merchant ships required protection on any given day during the war. 

You'll recall my postings about one of these ships - the Andalucia Star - sunk by a German U-Boat in October 1942. The ship was one of 1,923,000 tons of shipping lost during the height of the U-Boat offensive in 1942. 

U-Boats sank 7,622,400 tons of British merchant shipping by the end of the war. 
British shipping represented 54% of world shipping sunk during World War II.

This week, rightly, we wear red poppies to remember the soliders, airmen and sailors killed during World War II. Remembrance Sunday is also our opportunity to remember those 30,248 merchant navy sailors and fishing fleet crew members who never saw the end of the war.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010.

Support the Royal British Legion, Britain's custodian of Remembrance. 

Statistics and image: Imperial War Museum, London.

Friday, 5 November 2010

People are hungry for land

Will there be enough land available in Britain if we have to grow more of our own fruit and vegetables during the 21st Century?

That's the question I posed in my last post which invoked Winston Churchill's war cry, 'We must plough up the land'. 

The common perception says land is scarce in Britain. Journalists like Kevin Cahill and Jason Cowley argue this perception is based on a myth.  

Cahill says there's plenty of land that could be cultivated for food. The problem is Britain's land is owned and controlled by a tiny minority.

The United Kingdom consists of 60 million acres, says Cowley. A massive 41 million acres are defined as "agricultural". Mountains, forests and rivers account for another 15 per cent, much of which is owned by the Crown for use by the Ministry of Defence.

That leaves four million acres where most of Britain's 61 million people live. Increasing congestion in this 'urban plot' consequently inflates already expensive land and property prices.

So who owns Britain? Almost 70% of Britain's land is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. Put more starkly, 41 million acres are owned by 158,000 families. Some 24 million families live in the four million urban acres.

Only Spain rivals Britain for such an unequal concentration of land ownership. Britain's wealthiest landowner is the Duke of Westminster, the owner of a land portfolio that includes Belgravia and Mayfair. 

Urban agriculture is chiefly confined to the 250,000 allotments that remain out of the 1,400,000 allotments created in World War II. 
True, it's a big decrease but another statistic suggests the loss of allotments is far from being the end of Britain's land ownership saga.
"More than 100,000 people are on the waiting lists for any that become vacant, and the queue is still growing," says Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall. "People are hungry for land."

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010.

The coming battle over land and property, by Jason Cowley (additional reporting by Duncan Robinson), New Statesman, 18 October, 2010.
Image from Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Quote from The Ministry of Food, Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2010.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

"We must plough up the land" - Winston Churchill

My last posting 'Mind the carrot...etc' ended by asking what would be the impact if 100,000 people in London started growing their own fruit and vegetables?
To find out, I embarked on a quick sortie to the Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in Kennington, south London.
The 'Dig for Victory' artefacts on display unearthed (sorry, pardon the pun) some juicy statistics. 
For instance, six million British families grew their own vegetables during World War II. 
The number of allotments rose from 850,000 in 1939 to 1,750,000 by 1943.
Allotments sprouted (oops!) in unlikely places, such as around Queen Victoria's precious Albert Memorial in Hyde Park (see photo). 
Vegetable production increased by 55% during the war. Potato output rocketed up 80%.
One million British households kept chickens, geese and turkeys in 1943. 
Over 100,000 people joined 4,000 registered pig clubs. These produced 6,000 tons of meat per year - enough bacon for 150 million breakfasts.
Such sizzling stats, of course, reflect Britain's wartime fear of mass starvation.
The Andalucia Star was just one of hundreds of food-carrying merchant ships sunk during the conflict.Tons of Argentinian meat and eggs bound for Britain cascaded into the Atlantic when a German U-Boat torpedoed and sunk the Andalucia Star - my grandfather Les' former merchant navy cargo vessel - in October 1942.

"We must plough up the land," urged Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Manchester on 27 January, 1940. 
'Dig for Victory' and the Ministry of Food succeeded in keeping Britain fed during the war. 

Today's emergencies might not brandish a swastika or fire torpedoes but rising oil and food prices, financial turmoil and junk food diets all menace us from various directions. 
Maybe, we'll have to grow more of our own food in the twenty-first century.
But will we have enough land?

Image: Imperial War Museum

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010