All posts by davidkenvyn

For the Joy of Reading: Devil on the Cross

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a phenomenal writer.   It is such a great shame that so many people will not even attempt to read him because they cannot pronounce his name.   That is just so foolish.   he is one of the seminal writers currently living, and Devil on the Cross is extraordinary.   It is partly a satire of post-colonial Africa.   It is certainly a denunciation of neocolonialism.   It is devastating in its critique of capitalism as it works in Africa and across the world.   This may be the real reason why people do not want to read Ngugi wa Thiong’o.   They do not want to confront what has been done to Africa, and the racism that is endemic throughout the capitalist world, the so-called First World.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o forces on his readers, not through a tirade, but by carefully presenting his story.

This is the story of Wariinga, a young woman, full of ambition until she meets a rich old man, who seduces her and leaves her pregnant.   She does this with difficulty, but one day is a disaster.   She loses her job because she refuses to become the mistress of another old man and loses her home by an illegal, violent eviction.   So she decides to make her way to Ilmorog, her parents’ home.   On her way to the taxi rank, she receives an invitation from the Devil to a thieves’ convention in her home village.   She gets a matatu (a minibus) to her home, meeting various people who decide collectively that as they are going to Ilmorog, they may as well accept the invitations they have all received to the event.

The thieves at the convention are all stealing from their own people to enrich foreign corporations and are the stewards of capitalist exploitation in Kenya.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o introduces us to the corrupt, the venal, the exploitative, the oppressive and the downright murderous capitalists of modern Kenya.   He shows us, through Wangari, another passenger on the matatu, how the ideals of the Land Freedom Army, who fought for the independence of Kenya, have been betrayed in the post-colonial neocolonial settlement.   He shows how the collaborators with British colonialism came to dominate the government, through control of the structures of government.   He shows through Muturi, a further matatu passenger, how resistance is possible.   To that extent it is a highly political novel.

But it is also a love story.   Wariinga meets Gatuiria, a young man, on the matatu.   Slowly, they fall in love and decide to get married.   Gatuiria encourages Wariinga in her ambition to become a mechanic, in which she succeeds.    Then they go to meet Gatuiria’s parents, and that is the climax of the novel.

One of the things that comes through quite clearly is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a very good grasp of the New Testament.   Much of the thieves’ convention narrative is a riff on the parable of the Talents, and it does not make comfortable reading.   That also applies to the Devil’s version of the Beatitudes.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o exposes our shame in using the Bible to dominate.   As Desmond Tutu put it, “when the whites arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land.   Now we have the Bible, and they have the land.”

The final thing to say is that the women characters, especially Wariinga and Wangari, are very strong.   And the ending is a feminist battle-cry.   This is an extraordinary book by a consummate writer.   You would be very foolish to decide not to read it because you cannot pronounce the names.   That would be your parochialism and your loss.


For the Joy of Reading: Mandela: His Essential Life.

This book does exactly what it says on the tin.   It takes the 95 years of Mandela’s life and pares it down to a short, readable biography.   If you want detail, then read Anthony Sampson’s “Mandela” or of course Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and “Dare Not Linger: the Presidential Years”, edited by Mandla Langa.   There is, moreover, no-one better placed than Peter Hain to write what is essentially a brief life.   Peter Hain’s parents, Walter and Adeline, were anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, who fled to the UK in 1966, following years of persecution.   Peter, himself, earned the undying hatred of the apartheid regime by organising the opposition to the tour of the UK of the South African rugby team in 1969, and forcing the South African cricket team to cancel its planned visit for 1970.

So the first thing that has to be clear is that this is not a neutral biography.   Peter Hain grew up knowing Nelson Mandela, through his parents, and went on to play a significant role in the international struggle against apartheid.   Nor is this a neutral review.   I have been acquainted with Peter Hain since 1968, and I served as Chairperson of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee during the 1980s.

Having established the credentials of the author (and the reviewer) what is there to say about the book?   Although it is short, it is insightful.   Hain’s description of Mandela’s childhood in the Eastern Cape, it is essential to the understanding of the man.    He was an aristocrat, who became the head of the clan Madiba when his father died..   He was brought up from 9 years old by Jongintaba, his father’s cousin and the Regent of the Thembu Kingdom.   This is often portrayed as an idyllic life, herding cattle, because Mandela had fond memories of it, but it was a life of rural poverty even for those who held important positions in Xhosa society.   It was here, however, that Mandela learned the concepts of duty and service to his people.   It was here that he learned the history and traditions of his people, and underwent circumcision to become a man, in accordance with ritual.

Mandela eventually made his way to Johannesburg, avoiding an arranged marriage.   It was here that he met his friend and mentor, Walter Sisulu, joined the African National Congress and became committed to securing the right of the majority of the South African population to participate in the government of their country.   Throughout the course of the book, Peter Hain guides us through the development of Mandela’s political ideas, succinctly and accurately.   Hain does not gloss over any of the difficulties here.   When Mandela helped to found the ANC Youth League, he was an Africanist.   This was a position that he changed because of his experiences working with Indians, Coloureds and Whites in the struggle against apartheid.   Once he had become committed to building a non-racial South Africa, he did not waver from this position.

Nor does Peter Hain shy away from Mandela’s personal difficulties.   His first wife, Evelyn Mase, was a committed Christian with no interest in politics and, although they had three children, it soon became clear that they were incompatible.   Evelyn left him.   Then he met Nomzano Winnie Madikizela, who was much younger than him, and they got married.   Meanwhile Mandela’s political opposition to apartheid was developing.   He was banned, tried for treason and eventually acquitted.   Then following the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of the ANC and other organisations, he went on the run, and set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military organisation of which he was Commander-in-Chief.   He went abroad for military training, returned to South Africa and was eventually captured.   He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, for incitement to strike and for leaving the country without a passport.   Then the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe was captured at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, and Mandela was put on trial alongside them.   Peter Hain guides us through these momentous events and the subsequent Rivonia Trial with great skill, summarising the key moments.   Mandela’s speech from the dock with its ringing declaration of “if needs be, I am prepared to die” reverberated around the whole world.   The judge, Quartus de Wet, did not impose the death penalty.   He sentenced the Rivonia trialists to life imprisonment.

The story now breaks into two segments.   There are the struggles in prison to secure their dignity as individuals.   There was the struggle outside the prison, in which Winnie stepped up to the mark and confronted the power of the apartheid state.   Some of the struggles in prison seem to be quite ordinary.   There was the fight to be allocated long trousers.   African men were given shorts to wear because they were “boys”.   Indians and Coloured were allowed to wear long trousers because they were not black Africans.   Whites did not enter into the equation because they were kept in a separate prison.   There was apartheid even in the gaols.   There were also differences in the food made available, depending on your racial classification.   If this seems petty, it is because the authorities were petty, and these struggles were essentially to secure human dignity.   Peter Hain is very good at explaining these confrontations and Mandela’s relations with the warders, eventually winning them over.

Meanwhile outside the prisons, Winnie faced harassment, banning, detention, humiliation and torture.   She was eventually sent as an internal exile to Brandfort in the Orange Free State where she did not speak the local language (Sesotho).   Everything was done to try to break her.   Peter Hain shows the stresses and strains which she endured, and how the 27 years of separation ruined their marriage.

The struggle against apartheid intensified in both South Africa and internationally.  Inside the country, trade unions, although illegal, were being formed by the black workers and Black Consciousness was making itself felt.   Internationally, led by the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, the campaign for boycott and sanctions was gaining momentum.   And then, the Portuguese Fascist government, following military defeats in Africa, collapsed.   Angola and Mozambique became independent, and the children of South Africa refused to be taught in Afrikaans, leading to the Soweto Uprising of 1976.   Peter Hain is very adroit in explaining the significance of all these events, and how they were game changers.

By the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime, trying to face down growing internal unrest and growing international condemnation, were forced into covert negotiations Mandela.   Peter Hain is adept at explaining the formation of COSATU, the rise of the UDF and the collaboration of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan with the apartheid regime, trying to resist the growing demand for sanctions.

There is one point of accuracy in which I disagree with Peter Hain.   Govan Mbeki, one of the Rivonia Trialists alongside Mandela, was released by PW Botha in 1987, not by FW De Klerk in 1989.   I know this, because on the day of Mbeki’s release I was being greeted by his son, Thabo, at the ANC International Solidarity Conference at Arusha in Tanzania and I congratulated Thabo on the release of his father.   This, however, is a minor error in the narrative.

Peter Hain then takes us through the tumultuous years from the release of Mandela to his inauguration as President.   The defining factor was the need to avoid civil war.   It cam very close.   10,000 people were murdered in those four years.   Agents of the apartheid state tried desperately to stop the process of democratisation.   Peter Hain makes it very clear that it was Mandela’s steely determination that held the line and enabled the process to go forward.

I know that Peter Hain’s brief account of the election is substantially correct because I was there.    We even had a drink together in a hotel bar once the count was over.   Peter Hain’s account of the presidential years is also on target, citing the need for reconciliation as the most pressing.   This however did not mean that the truth was to be ignored which is why Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The last two chapters are called “Mandela Magic” and “Legacy Betrayed?”.   The very titles tell us what they are about.   “Mandela Magic” deals with the charm and charisma of the man, which is unquestionable.   He won over all of us who had the privilege of meeting him.   “Legacy Betrayed?” is about Peter Hain’s view of how South Africa has developed under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mandela’s successors as President.   It is not a view with which I would substantially disagree.   It is, however, for you to make up your mind about that.

Peter Hain has written a very brief biography (196 pages) of Nelson Mandela..   It covers all the basics.   It does not avoid any of the difficulties, such as the controversies around the behaviour of Winnie Mandela.   It is a succinct account of a long and complex life.   It is a very good book.


For the Joy of Reading: Black Robe

This is a story about a clash of cultures, about misunderstandings and incomprehension.   It is about French Jesuit missionaries coming into contact with Native Americans along the St. Laurence River in the seventeenth century.   The story is set in the early seventeenth century at the same time as the Three Musketeers.   Father Laforgue and D’Artagnan are contemporaries.   Cardinal Richelieu even makes a fleeting appearance in Black Robe.   But these are separate worlds.

A closer comparison would be to “The Last of the Mohicans” set a century later, and in the British colonies to the south.    But do not expect the noble savage, as envisioned by Rousseau.   Neehatin and Chomina are not Chingachgook and Uncas.   They are not even noble villains like Magua, someone you can hate but respect.   They are foul-mouthed, and can be quite cynical and vicious.

The world views however are quite different, and this is made very clear in the course of the telling of this story.   The Jesuits, obviously, and the French in general have a Christian worldview, a view of salvation gained through the sacrifice of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection.   They believe in the Sacraments, and especially that in the Eucharist or Communion the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.   Neehatin, Chomina and the others find this utterly incomprehensible.   For them, the world is sentient, filled with what we would call divinity.   They believe in the power of dreams, and they use dreams to guide the way in which to live their lives.   Basically, they believe that the Jesuits are sorcerers, and they are afraid of their power.

So when Father LaForgue sets off upriver to join a Jesuit settlement, he sets in motion a series of events over which he has no control.   The worst of this, for the Father, is the sexual relationship between his young assistant, Daniel, known as Iwanchou, and Chomina’s daughter, Annuka.   Chomina also does not believe that Iwanchou is a suitable husband for his daughter and does his best to finish the relationship.   This has deadly consequences.

There will be some passages which will shock you.   There is torture, there is murder, there is cannibalism.   This is a culture that is red in tooth and claw.   What hangs over this story, however, is the fear that one culture will destroy the other.   In this world, that makes this an important book to read.

For the Joy of Reading: Falcon of Sparta

Conn Iggulden is a reliable writer of historical novels.   What you will get will be readable, pacy and exciting.   That is certainly the case with Falcon of Sparta.   This is the story of the Anabasis, the march of ten thousand Greek soldiers across the Persian Empire   It was this march that proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the Persian Empire was vulnerable.   This was the march that opened the way for the conquest by Alexander the Great.

The story begins with a dynastic struggle.   Darius II, the Great King of Persia, dies leaving two sons.   The elder son, Artaxerxes, succeeds to the throne but does not eliminate his brother Cyrus because of the intervention of their mother Queen Parysatis.   This however is after Artaxerxes has made his intention clear by murdering Cyrus’ bodyguards and imprisoning the Prince.   Cyrus is then released and prepares for war, recruiting 10,000 Greek mercenaries to march with him on the Persian Empire’s capital.

All of this is a matter of the historical record, but most people will probably not be familiar with ancient history.   So I am not going to give any of the details of the march, the battle of Cunaxa or what happened afterwards.   What is important is that one of the Greek leaders was called Xenophon, and he was a pupil of Socrates, the philosopher, who is a peripheral character in this book.   Xenophon was the author of the “Anabasis” the only record of this campaign.   We have to believe what he says, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.   What we do know is that the army under his command survived and that gives his account credibility.

What Conn Iggulden is take the Anabasis and weld it into an historical novel, seeking to understand what his characters thought as the events progressed.   We meet some unpleasant characters, like Tissaphernes, a Persian noble loyal to the Achaemenid dynasty and to Artaxerxes, the heir of the Great King, but also self-serving, devious and vicious.   Then there is Queen Parysatis whose argument that Cyrus is the only heir as Artaxerxes does not yet have children proves to be fatal.   [Incidentally, if Artaxerxes of the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther this throws a whole new light on the viciousness of the Achaemenid court].   We meet the Greek generals and soldiers, who throw themselves into an attack on the Persian Empire for money, but also for revenge.   Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea resonate throughout this story.

So what you have is an exciting historical novel, an easy read into the history of the ancient world, and the fall of the Persian Empire.   I wonder if a series about Alexander the Great will follow.

For the Joy of Reading: The Silk Roads

The first thing that has to be said about this book is that it is a delight to read a history of the Eurasian landmass that does not treat a peripheral group of islands on the western extremity of that landmass as central to the history of the world, until that actually became the case, at the end of the sixteenth century, to be generous.   It is also interesting that it treats the western, European end of that landmass as peripheral, until Columbus and Vasco Da Gama opened the sea routes west and east at the end of the fifteenth century.   As an addendum, it is interesting that Columbus had not had a clue about what he had done, and that it was not until the murderous conquests of Cortez and Pizarro in the early sixteenth century that the balance of the world was altered, and the contribution of Columbus to the imperialist destiny of Europe became clear.

It is also interesting that the Silk Roads were not roads, or at least not in the modern sense.   They were trade routes, and the goods that were transported across them came on the backs of camels, donkeys and mules, and sometimes by sea.   The great centres of civilisation were China and India, and they exported their surpluses along routes around the high Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert, through the steppes to Persia, to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and then on to Rome, and its successors.

The steppes were also important because it was here that the beasts of burden were bred.   Two-humped camels are called Bactrian because they were bred in the province to the west of modern Afghanistan, and they were vital because they had the ability to carry vast amounts of water in their two humps.   The steppes were also home to vast horse herds, bred by nomad tribesmen and it was on horseback that the nomads swept time and time again to conquer – Huns and Avars and Turks and Mongols.   The names of their leaders are legendary – Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane.   Genghis Khan conquered the biggest land empire that the world has ever known.   The Silk Roads were the conduit for his armies.

But they were more than that: they were conduits for ideas and technologies.   The Abrahamic religions spread along the Silk Roads.   Silk manufacture and papermaking came along the Silk Roads from China.   Peter Frankopan sets out the central role of the Silk Roads as the main arteries of trade and civilisation from the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids to the present day.   Peter Frankopan sets out the case that the Silk Roads are the arteries leading to the heart of the world, and that heart is not Europe.   It is a necessary lesson.

This is a complex tale, well-told by Peter Frankopan.   It is very ambitious.   It covers a timespan of 2,500 years in 521 pages.   There are times when I wished for a bit more detail.   For instance, why did the Mongol expansion stop when Ogodei Khan died unexpectedly in 1241.   The answer, of course, is that it didn’t.   It was merely that Subadei Khan withdrew from the Danube, with his armies, to take part in the election of the new Great Khan.   Kubilai then moved into China, and Khulugu moved south into Persia and destroyed Baghdad.   It was Qutuz, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt who stopped the Mongol advance westward at the Battle of Ayn Jalud, but this was only decisive because Khulugu was engaged, more profitably, elsewhere and did not challenge the Mamluk victory.   This, however, is a small criticism of what must have been editorial decisions to keep the story moving along without making it unintelligible.

No-one could accuse this book of being unintelligible.   The author guides you through the story with great skill, and keeps your attention from Alexander the Great to Mossadeq and Ayatollah Khomeini.   If you want to understand the world in which we live, this is a book that you should read.

The Nelson Mandela Freedom March, 1988

I joined the Nelson Mandela Freedom March at Macclesfield on Sunday 3rd July. The official diary for the March says that I joined at Manchester, but that is wrong. I joined at Macclesfield. I wondered how I was actually going to find where they were assembling. My cunning plan was to walk to the centre of the town and hope that I met someone, and that is exactly what happened. Paul Brannen, one of the marchers, saw me and called me over. I threw my bag into the back of the van that was carrying all of our luggage. Simon Osborn, the March organiser, threw a tee-shirt and a pair of track suit trousers at me, and told me to change my clothes. I did this in the street. Erdogan Serikala, another one of the marchers, told me to wear two pairs of socks so that I did not get blisters. [No-one had thought that we would need to wear walking socks].

The march was heading that day to Stoke-on-Trent, stopping at Congleton, in the heart of Tory Cheshire, where we were going to have our lunch. Anne Winterton, the local MP, have issued a vitriolic press statement calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist and condemning the marchers as supporters of a terrorist organisation. She actually went so far as to tell her constituents not to support the march. The response was absolutely magnificent. There were hundreds of people, possibly thousands, lining the streets waiting to greet us. The streets along our route were swathed in green, black and gold, the colours of the ANC. There was a choir that greeted us with “Nkosi Sikelel’I Afrika”, the anthem of the African National Congress, and when they had finished Vijay Krishnarayan, one of the marchers, clenched his fist in the ANC salute and shouted “Amandla” [Power] and we all replied “Awethu” [to the People]. This was a clear message to Margaret Thatcher and the more rabid of her supporters that there was overwhelming support in the UK for the release of Nelson Mandela. One of the marchers spoke. The speech always contained the same demands: the release of Nelson Mandela and all South African and Namibian political prisoners, the independence of Namibia and the end of apartheid, and calling for the imposition of sanctions on apartheid South African until these objectives were achieved. It was not a message that Margaret Thatcher wanted to hear. It was at Congleton that I became convinced that the momentum of our campaign, an international campaign agreed at the Arusha Conference, was unstoppable. Seeing this rock-solid support in Cheshire, the heart of Tory England, made me sure that we had won.

We had our lunch in a local church hall and, as I recall, there was a lot of coleslaw. This was to become a recurrent theme of the catering. The logic was that we were marching for the release of Nelson Mandela, and that this meant that we must be vegetarians and that we would like coleslaw. There was also an assumption that we would like beer, and this did prove to be correct for many, if not all, of us. After lunch, we lined up in threes, someone shouted “Amandla!” and we replied “Awethu!” and then someone started to sing “Forward we will march to the People’s Government”. This was a song based on the provisions of the Freedom Charter, adopted by the ANC at the Kliptown Congress of the People in 1955. The words were simple.
Forward we will march, forward we will march

Forward we will march to the People’s Government

This is the message of the Freedom Charter

Forward we will march to the People’s government.

Each subsequent verse took one of the objectives of the Freedom Charter, such as “The land shall be shared by those who work it”, and turned it into part of the song. It also had the advantage of being completely in English. It was not the only liberation song that we learned but it, along with “Mandela says fight for freedom, Mandela says freedom now” was the most popular. These two songs had the advantage that we did not have any difficulty pronouncing the words, and that our audiences in the cities, towns and villages that we passed through could understand what we were singing.

From Congleton, we marched south-east towards Stoke-on-Trent. As we marched it was drizzling and so we put on our waterproofs. As we climbed to the top of one hill, there was another in front of us in what appeared to be an endless succession. Eventually, we got to the City Hall where we were the guests of honour at a Civic Reception. There was coleslaw, in large quantities, amongst the food on offer.

The next day, we marched to Stafford. That morning, I learned some of the Marchers’ rules for communal living. Obviously, if you have 25 marchers (one for every year that Mandela had been in prison) and their support staff sleeping in one place, you will find that there are difference sleep patterns. Some people will go to bed early, others will stay up late. Some people will get up early, which was not necessarily the same people who went to bed early. Some people smoked, others did not. Some people (me) would snore. So we had a noisy space (talkers and snorers) and a quiet space, and we had smoking and non-smoking areas. Those who woke up early (again me) had to tiptoe around quietly so as not to disturb the others. This generally meant going to the kitchen and boiling a kettle, and making tea and coffee ready for the others as they woke up. Also, you found somewhere light where you could read a book. I am sure I was reading something appropriate, but I cannot remember what it was. Whoever was supplying the breakfast generally arrived just before 8.00am. Those of us who woke up early had the advantage of getting the bathroom to ourselves. Once the caterers arrived with breakfast, there was always a queue (and when I say caterers, I mean the volunteers from the local anti-apartheid groups who were feeding us). Then we had to sort out the laundry. We had a uniform that consisted of a tee-shirt that read “Nelson Mandela Freedom March Glasgow to London 1988” and a pair of ANC track suit trousers. We had one tee-shirt and trousers on, and one tee-shirt and trousers in the wash every day. At least we were always clean. These were the kind of practicalities that were important.

After breakfast, we loaded up the van, lined up in threes with one leading, and set off on the march either chanting slogans or singing a freedom song. This was the pattern every day while I was on the march, and it seemed like an established routine.
The march to Stafford was uneventful, apart from the drenching rain. When we arrived at Stafford Railway Station, we were greeted by Michael Scott-Joynt, the newly appointed Bishop of Stafford, wearing a purple cassock, a pectoral cross and an enormous umbrella. When you remember that, like all Church of England bishops, he was appointed by the Prime Minister, this was an act of considerable bravery. It put him on a collision course with Margaret Thatcher. He was not to be the only bishop that preferred to follow the lead of Archbishops Tutu and Huddleston. This was another indication that Margaret Thatcher was losing her personal battle with the Anti-Apartheid Movement over the imposition of sanctions and the demand for the release of Nelson Mandela and the other South African and Namibian political prisoners. A newly appointed Bishop of the Church of England, one of her appointees, was prepared to turn out, and give us his blessing. Middle England was turning against her. From the railway station we went to North Staffordshire Polytechnic where we spent the night sleeping on the floor of the Student Union.

The next day we set off to Lichfield, which is a lovely little market town to the north of Birmingham. It is also the place that Samuel Johnson was born. His dictionary has been of major importance in defining both the meaning and the spelling of words in English. So I set off to see if I could find anything honouring the man in his birthplace. I do not remember succeeding. At Lichfield we were hosted by another Bishop. It was something that we got used to.

From Lichfield we went on to Walsall. We had a civic reception with coleslaw. I have no idea where we stayed that night. The next day, we marched on to Birmingham. There we were met by the Birmingham Anti-Apartheid Group.    The day after, we had a day off. This was because Jerry Dammers and Ndondo Khuze had come to Birmingham to record a new version of “Free Nelson Mandela”. Jerry had written the song in 1983 and Ndondo had sung it at the Wembley Concert in June. I was quite rightly not allowed anywhere near the recording as I have a voice that makes a corncrake sound melodious. I said “hello” to Jerry and Ndondo. Then I went to Birmingham Central Library to have a look at their Shakespeare collection. I was wearing my Nelson Mandela Freedom Marcher uniform because we had photographs taken with Jerry and Ndondo for the press. When I got to the library, I introduced myself, carefully not saying where I worked as I did not want to give the impression that this was any kind of official visit. The reception that I got was frosty in the extreme. It was like talking to the White Witch in Narnia. She did not want to show me the Shakespeare Collection. She wanted me off the premises as quickly as possible before my uniform attracted any attention and caused any embarrassment. The fact that there was an Anti-Apartheid stall directly outside the library in Chamberlain Square was no concern to her. She made it quite clear that she wanted such contamination off the premises. I could have insisted that this was a public library and stayed, but as she would not show me what I wanted to see, I decided to leave and do something more useful. So I joined Vanessa Eyre on the stall. That evening we had a really good curry at a restaurant called the Red Fort.

The following day we were to march to Coventry. The police wanted us to march along the hard shoulder of the motorway. Our response could be described as robust. We said “No”. The police then said that if we did not march along the hard shoulder they would withdraw the police escort. We said “Fine”. We had no intention of marching long the hard shoulder of a motorway, carrying banners, and next to passing freight lorries. Everywhere else the police had kept us away from motorways. The West Midlands Police were trying to insist that we marched on the hard shoulder of one of the busiest motorways in the country. Our point-blank refusal to do this led to the withdrawal of the police escort while we were in the West Midlands police area. There was some discussion which resulted in us organizing ourselves. I pointed out to Alan Brooks that we would have to stop every so often to allow the traffic to pass us. We were averaging about five miles an hour, but this was nothing to traffic that was going at anything up to ten times that speed. Basically, we found somewhere to stop every half hour or so to allow the traffic that had been building up behind us to pass. We also waved at the approaching lorries, most of whom slowed down so that we did not have to cope with a side-wind into our banners. Quite a number of the drivers waved back at us and tooted their horns, which was nice. We managed perfectly well without the West Midlands Police. These were the same West Midlands Police who were later found to have concocted evidence against the Birmingham Six and others. It is hardly surprising that they treated the Nelson Mandela Freedom March in the way that they did.

The next day we were the guests of the Bishop of Coventry at the Sunday Eucharist at the Cathedral. The preacher was the Rev. Brian Brown, a Methodist Minister and the father of Sean Brown, one of the marchers. His text was “Blessed are the peacemakers” and this sermon has stayed with me ever since that day. He told a story of a boy who was playing football in the street, who kicked a ball hard and broke a neighbour’s window. He ran into his own house and told his father what had happened. His father asked “Did anyone see you?” and the boy said “No.” So the father said “Let’s keep quiet about it then.” But the mother said “No. You will go and knock on the door and apologise, and say that we will pay for the window, and that we will deduct a sum from your pocket-money until you have paid to replace the window yourself.” The point was quite clear. The boy had to take responsibility for his own errors, and had to face up to the need to put things right. Brian was quite clear that it was the mother who was the peacemaker. Brian had served as Methodist minister in South Africa until he was expelled because of his vocal opposition to apartheid. Brian was quite clear. British governments had created a legacy of colonialism, racism and oppression in South Africa, and that the British people had a duty to rectify what had been done. This required the isolation of apartheid and the imposition of sanctions, and the refusal of the Thatcher government to take action was completely unacceptable. It was the kind of sermon that took no prisoners. It was delivered by a gentle, unassuming man, a true hero of the worldwide anti-apartheid struggle. Sean sat there, glowing with pride.

The following day we marched to Leamington Spa taking the route through Warwick. Here, we were greeted by the noisiest demonstration that I have ever been on in my life. There were drummers from the local Sikh temple, there was a jazz band and there may even have been a bagpiper. I think it was in Warwick that we also received the news that the Sharpeville Six had been reprieved. This was a significant victory. The Sharpeville Six had been arrested because they were known to the apartheid police as activists, and that they had been in proximity to the murder of some collaborators with the apartheid regime in Sharpeville. Their proximity to the event was simple. They lived in Sharpeville. There was no evidence that they had anything to do with the murders. The State of Emergency regulations did not require the apartheid police to prove that the accused had actually done anything. The Sharpeville Six were sentenced to death. This injustice caused an international outcry. The Nelson Mandela Freedom Marchers had raised the case of the Sharpeville Six at every stop along their route. The fact that the Sharpeville Six had been reprieved showed that we could have an effect.

Peter Shield announced to the crowd that the Sharpeville Six had been reprieved. The cheer that went up was absolutely deafening, enhanced as it was by bhangra drumming, rattles and who knows what else. There could be no doubt whatsoever that the apartheid regime was susceptible to pressure. It reinforced our argument that sanctions were necessary to force the regime to negotiate an end to apartheid. Margaret Thatcher argued, in response, that sanctions would hurt the very people that they were designed to help. The Anti-Apartheid Movement responded with the argument first put by Julius Nyerere. IF you were at the bottom of the ladder and someone kicked it away, you did not have far to fall. It was those at the top of the ladder who were going to be hurt. Also, the imposition of sanctions would save lives because it would speed up the need for the apartheid regime to negotiate.   Warwick was not a traditional area of strength for the Anti-Apartheid Movement. There is a University in Warwick, but by the time we got there it was near or nearing the start of the summer vacation. The size of the crowd, and their response to the reprieve of the Sharpeville Six, was an indication of how we were winning the argument. We had very good reason to be happy with the response that we got in Warwick.   There was also a very human element. I overheard two young women, one saying to the other “Did you see the man who spoke. He’s gorgeous.” And so, in the middle of all the very serious politics, there was normality.

We had lunch, sitting looking at Warwick Castle. I decided to go and look at the Lord Leycester Hospital, which was not far from the castle in the High Street. The hospital was founded by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was the counsellor and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He founded it to provide a home for the veterans of the army that he commanded in the Netherlands from 1584 to 1588 during the Dutch War of Independence fought against Philip II of Spain. It is a lovely Tudor building, and it is still occupied by army veterans. I may even have dragged some of the other marchers along with me to see a historic building. The then residents were certainly surprised that one of the Nelson Mandela Freedom Marchers knew about the history of their building. I may have confessed that Dutch history from 1566-1609 (that is, the first period of the Eighty Years War, or War of Independence) was one of the special subjects that I studied for my history degree.

After lunch, we marched to Leamington Spa along country roads through a part of the country that is forever associated with William Shakespeare. There was even a sign for the Forest of Arden, which is one of the locations in “As You Like It”. It was a beautiful afternoon until we arrived in Leamington Spa itself. A man driving a Rolls Royce decided to drive straight into us, scattering us and knocking Sean Brown to the ground. He clearly intended to drive off, but Norrie hit the roof of the car with his fist. The man stopped his car and got out, furious. Then he saw Norrie. Now Norrie was not tall but he was built like a tank. The man said that his car had been assaulted and that he was reporting it to the police. I said “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. There is one of you. There are 25 of us, and we will all testify that you drove your car into us, injuring one of us”. I think I added “doing grievous bodily harm”. The man got back in his car and drove off. Sean was bruised but not injured. I assume that he got medical treatment that night, but I do not know. All I know is that this incident did not stop him completing the march.

What was interesting was that a rabid right-winger thought that he could drive a car into the marchers and get away with it, which he did. If Sean had been injured, it would have been another matter. One of the marchers had noted his number plate. Also, if the West Midlands Police had not withdrawn their escort this would not have happened. I have always thought that it was symptomatic of Thatcher’s Britain.   The rest of our time at Leamington Spa paled into insignificance compared with this. There was, however, one other incident. A car drew up. Now this caused a certain unease given what had just happened. Then a young man got out. I called out to Sean “You’re brother’s here”. Now I had never met David in my life. It was just obvious. He was the spitting image of Sean. Of course, he was worried when he found out what had happened, but Sean was obviously all right, if a bit sore.

The day after, we had a long march from Leamington Spa to the Northampton. This route took us through Daventry and Rugby, and finally out of the remit of the West Midlands Police. As I recall it, the march that day was rather uneventful. We crossed over the Glasgow to London railway line and had our packed lunches (provided by our hosts from Leamington Spa) sitting at the foot of a collection of radio masts. Of course, there was nowhere to relieve ourselves, so we went behind some bushes, the men at one end and the women at the other. It was then that we discovered that we were at the end of the flight path of Birmingham International Airport. What the pilots thought of this as they flew overhead is a matter for speculation.

Somewhere along the way, we were joined by a crew from East German TV, who had decided that the march nearing London was a major news item, and who intended to send in filmed reports to their headquarters in Berlin every day. We dutifully began to sing freedom songs and to chant slogans as we were being filmed. We also found that we had to spend time sitting around in fields because we were ahead of schedule, and could not arrive in places ahead of the time that had been agreed with our reception organisers.   We got to a roundabout just outside Northampton, and my right knee collapsed under me. I somehow hobbled into the town centre, helped by Vijay and Peter. We were taken to Afro-Caribbean centre where there were doctors and nurses waiting to deal with any injuries. I showed them my knee. They told me that I needed to get in checked out by my GP when I got back home because I had probably done permanent damage. They also gave me some ointment to rub into my knee and a support stocking to wear throughout the rest of the march. I was not the first of the marchers to injure myself. Erdogan Serikala had been sent home because he could not walk even with support stockings. He was not happy about this, and had not wanted to go, but he could not walk. I realized that I was lucky because I would be able to continue the march, and that was all that mattered. I then joined the others, and stuffed myself with Caribbean food. Vijay in particular was enjoying the meal. His family is from Guyana, and it was a reminder of his mother’s cooking.

The next day we set out for Bedford which was the birthplace of John Bunyan and of our President, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. They were both men of uncompromising Christian belief and although they would not have agreed on all the detail of doctrine, I have no doubt that they both valued the individual, and saw everyone as equal in the eyes of their God. As usual, we set off with a cry of “Amandla! Awethu!” or “Power to the People!” We were probably much more noisy than usual because we were being filmed by the crew from East German TV. When we got into the countryside, we stopped chanting. We had been joined by a group from the Socialist Workers’ Party and, when we stopped, they continued chanting. They obviously had not realized why we had been chanting. If they had, they would not have approved. Vijay was quite withering: “Oh, look a bunch of flowers! They have been converted!” It was ironic that a group of Trotskyists, chanting anti-apartheid slogans, were going to be a major news item on East German TV that night. Anyway, after a while they fell behind and then left us because they could not keep up with the pace.. There were some advantages to marching at five miles an hour.   In the afternoon, we were joined by a photographer from the Sun newspaper. We were somewhat incredulous. We could not work out what they were going to say about us. So we ran a competition for a headline. I suggested “Sex Mad Commies Bonk from Glasgow to London”. That killed the competition stone dead, as no-one could think of anything better. When we got to Bedford, the organisers told us that our reception was to be at a very posh nightclub. They were worried that the bouncers would not let us in because the men were not wearing ties. We pointed to our tee-shirts and suggested that this was the proof that we were indeed the guests of honour. This proved to be the case. We had no trouble getting in.

The following day we headed to Luton. John Carlisle was the MP for Luton North. He was such an extreme supporter of the apartheid regime that he made Margaret Thatcher look like some kind of wimp. He had the nickname “the MP for Johannesburg”. He decided to send us a large crate of South African wine as a gift, and just to annoy us. Now that I think about it, I have my doubts about whether he actually paid for it. Anyway, this gave us the perfect photo opportunity. There is a photo of some of the marchers emptying the bottles of wine into the gutter. There were so many boxes of wine, however, that we sent some of them to the Anti-Apartheid Office in Mandela Street in Camden, where they sat, ignored, in a corner for six years. On 10th May 1994, when Mandela was inaugurated as the President of South Africa, we drank them, So it was that John Carlisle contributed to our celebration of the end of apartheid.   From Luton we headed to St. Alban’s which was quite a short journey. The thing that I remember about St. Albans is quite simple. Nora Halverson, from the Hemel Hempstead Anti-Apartheid Group, and her helpers arrived quite early in the morning to set out breakfast for us. They put out bowls oc coleslaw. I was incredulous and said so. Nora replied that they thought that there must be a lot of vegetarians on the march and that was why they had supplied the coleslaw. I remember saying “Nora, even vegetarians eat toast for breakfast”. Someone was sent out to get bread and jam, and we had toast. To this day, I avoid eating coleslaw.

Outside St Alban’s we said goodbye to our Hertfordshire Police escort who handed us over to the Metropolitan Police. One of our new escort said to me “We were told we would have to walk slowly because you lot were exhausted”. I replied “Do we look exhausted?” He shook his head. We marched through Potters Bar to East Finchley and when we got there Mrs. Tambo and her daughters Thembi and Tselane were waiting for us. I cannot remember if Dali was there, but his two nephews, Thembi’s boys, Sasha and Oliver, were. Oliver ran forward and I swept him up onto my shoulders. Sasha was not far behind and I took him by the hand. I introduced Oliver to the other marchers as Oliver Tambo and he giggled. [I should add that Oliver is now a bodybuilder, and both the boys are huge]. Patsy Pillay and others had organised a lunch for us, and I think it was at Patsy’s house in Fortis Green Road ( the one that Vella and Patsy mortgaged to provide finance for the Anti-Apartheid Movement). From there we marched to Haringey. Anna-Zohra Tikly, the daughter of Mohammed Tikly, the Director of Somafco, was one of the organisers of our reception. She asked a policeman when we would be arriving, and he said something like “They are only a mile away. The rate they are going they’ll be here in five to ten minutes”. We marched to Alexandra Palace where we were staying the night. A party there in honour of Nelson Mandela had been organised by Bernie Grant, the MP for Tottenham, and we were the guests of honour. We changed and Patsy Pillay took away our tee-shirts. She washed them, starched them and ironed them, and returned them to us beautifully clean and presentable. Patsy knew that we were going to be seen on TVs throughout the world the next day, and that the images would be smuggled into South Africa and Namibia. She knew that we had to look really good, and she made sure that we did. The importance of such things should never be under-estimated.

The next day we were bussed from Alexandra Palace to Finsbury Park from where we were to lead the demonstration to Hyde Park, for the rally where Desmond Tutu and OR Tambo would be amongst the speakers. At least that was the plan, but OR Tambo was held up at Heathrow by immigration officials and did not get to the demonstration. I can only assume that this was deliberate. When we arrived at Finsbury Park, the demonstration was already assembling and there were news teams from around the world, with their cameras at the ready. We were taken to a café at the top of a hill, where we had breakfast. Then we went outside and starting milling around. No-one took the slightest bit of notice of us. Joni McDougal noticed this, and said so. The marchers were not happy about this, so I decided to do something about it. I bellowed “Line up in threes” which we did. After all, we had been doing this every day of the march. I then bellowed “Amandla!” and the marchers replied “Awethu!” and we set off down the hill towards the gate. This took some of the TV crews by surprise, and they wanted us to do it again so that they got it on film. Alan Brooks, who was the March leader and the Deputy Executive Secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, said “No” to this. But we had certainly been noticed.

Alan then sent me to the platform because it had been decided that I would make the fundraising appeal on behalf of the marchers. I am not sure who decided this, but I remember that Margaret Ling, a member of the National Executive Committee, had expected to make the appeal. She, however, agreed that it would be better if the appeal was made by one of the marchers, so she stepped down and let me do it. I cannot remember a word of what I said. I was told later on the march that we had raised £29,000 which was more than we had expected. Vella Pillay, our Treasurer, was delighted with me. He said “Well done”.    As we were leaving Finsbury Park, I saw Joan Ruddock trying to join the front of the march. Joan Ruddock was the National Chairperson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and she had just become the MP for Lewisham/Deptford. She was supposed to be one of the people leading the march, but our stewards did not recognize her and were preventing her from getting through the cordon. I went over to Joan, and introduced her to the stewards, asking them to let her through which they did. We then turned into Camden Road and I remembered that there was a Shell Garage there. It was the garage where we launched the campaign to “Isolate Apartheid! Boycott Shell!” as our slogan put it. On the march, every time that we went passed a Shell Garage we had shouted the slogan. We quickly agreed that we would not go passed this garage quietly either, especially as we had something like 50,000 people behind us. There were also people lining the streets, and looking out at us from windows and balconies. It was like a carnival as we marched by. When we reached the garage, we roared our slogan and it was taken up by the march along the length of Camden Road. We then headed towards Euston Station and Oxford Street on our way to Hyde Park, where 250,000 people were waiting to greet us.

The Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops just happened to be meeting at the time that the march arrived in London. At the urging of Archbishops Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu they agreed to abandon their business for the day and to come to meet us. I have never seen so many purple cassocks in one place. I remember being introduced to Archbishop Sharp, the Primate of Canada, in the tea tent behind the stage. I had been told that I would not be going on to the platform if Erdogan Serikala, who had injured himself badly, attended the rally which he did. So I was relaxing in the tea tent being introduced to Archbishops, as you do. Then Mike Terry told me that one of the marchers had disappeared in the crowd and that I was to get ready to go on the stage with the others. So I left and joined the queue. It was then that we discovered that Erdogan really could not walk, so I told him to put his arm over my shoulder and I carried him onto the stage. As we marched on the stage, the cheers were deafening. Jo Beck spoke on behalf of the Marchers. We were also on stage for the speeches by Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu. It was on stage that we discovered that OR Tambo had been held up at Heathrow. We then quitted the stage and went to the front for the concert, where the lead performers were Jim Kerr and Simple Minds, and then Jerry Dammers and his band. We got up and danced.

That evening there was a vigil outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square and a number of us went along to it. Dali Tambo saw me and we hugged. We had not doubt, either of us, that the Anti-Apartheid Movement had just delivered a stunning 70th birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela. We knew that this was something that could not be ignored by either the British or the South African governments. The promises made at the Arusha Conference had been delivered. We were more than happy. We were very proud. We were proud of the more than 20 million people boycotting apartheid goods.    We were proud of everyone who, at every stage of the march, had turned out to demand the release of Nelson Mandela and all the South African and Namibian political prisoners.   There were thousands upon thousands of us. I spoke for the marchers, and then someone began to sing “Free Nelson Mandela”, and Jerry Dammers was standing there on the pavement outside South Africa House.

That night we stayed at the Transport and General Workers Union hotel. The next day was Nelson Mandela’s actual birthday, 18th July 1988. I cannot remember where we assembled, but we marched the last mile, the 600th mile of the whole march, to St. James’ Church, Piccadilly, where Trevor Huddleston was leading a service of celebration. That evening Oliver Tambo hosted a party at the Commonwealth Institute, and we were the guests of honour in our uniforms Oliver Tambo thanked us for the contribution that we had made to the liberation struggle We were so proud.


For the Joy of Reading: Ghost

This is a collection of 100 exceedingly spooky short stories edited by Louise Welsh.   The subtitle says it all: “100 Stories to Read with the Lights on”.   Putting aside the question of how you are expected to read anything at night with the lights off, this is not a collection that you can read at one sitting.   There are 100 short stories and the book is over 700 pages long.   You are only going to read two or three at one sitting, depending on the number of pages.

This is a fine collection of authors ranging from Pliny to Jackie Kay and James Robertson.   If there seems to be a preponderance of Scots, that is because they are so good at scaring the wits out of you.   I guarantee that once you have read it, you will never forget Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet”.   This book includes classics of the genre such as “Whistle and I’ll Come To You” by M.R. James, and stories that I had not read before such as “The Sagebrush Kid”.   These stories range from the whimsical to the deeply malevolent, from “The Canterville Ghost” to “John Charrington’s Wedding”.

This is a wonderful selection, well worth dipping into on a dark night when you want to scare yourself silly.   But do not read too many at once.   You do not want to wake up catatonic.