Thursday, 10 March 2022

How Micro-Aggressions Go Nuclear

Notes from a sceptical Nigerian in England

I arrived at Bryanston (a boarding school in Dorset) in September 1978, from King’s College, Lagos. It was my first time in England, I found myself in a school with girls for the first time since puberty, and I was one of only three Black students. I survived, and even thrived, though not entirely unscathed.

In Summer term 1979, a group of about thirty of us went on a school trip to France, by ferry. At Calais, our teacher went through customs and continued ahead to make some arrangements. I, coming up near the rear, was taken to one side after it was noted that I had no visa in my Nigerian passport. I was detained, summarily manhandled like a criminal, and then thrown unto the next ferry back to Dover.

That memory came back as I was watching scenes of Africans being prevented from fleeing Ukraine, following what most pundits have called Vladimir Putin’s “unjustified, unprovoked act of aggression.” What’s happening to Africans (some of whom will be King’s College OBs) in Eastern Europe right now puts my experience into perspective, but reveals some interesting parallels. 

Back at Bryanston, there was a trip to Greece the following March (I had a visa this time!), from which I have two distinct memories: first, remaining on the coach and watching “those crazy white people” going into the sea at the beach (in March!), just because it was Greece. The second was being harassed throughout the trip by another boy, on account of my race – he made that clear. The matter was resolved when I went into his room one night, locked the door, beat him up and left.

On another occasion, I was called the N-word to my face by another boy. I didn’t fight him, partly because he was in the Rugby 1st XV, or even report it. I remember him, but when we met decades later, I sensed his discomfort, even without the incident being mentioned.

Fast forward to late December 2021, forty years after leaving Bryanston to study architecture. By now, I have switched from architecture to being a self-producing touring actor/singer. I often post my events on Facebook groups that I belong to, including the Old Bryanstonians group and a small subgroup called Sundaylunch8. Imagine my surprise when one of the admins responds to a post on the next online sharing of my radio play, Paul Robeson’s Love Song with the following comment: “I think you’ll find that one way of getting kicked off this group is by promoting yourself on it.” To this I responded, “Oh, is that so? Happy New Year to you too.”

A week later, I posted another comment, asking the general membership if I was the only one to wonder what made the admin think it was acceptable or appropriate to address me in that way, saying I hoped it might start an interesting conversation. A few (three, I think) responded with some thoughts. Days passed, and I did another post asking for more comments. Some days later, I couldn’t find the group, so I messaged four friends asking them to tell me what they knew. One responded privately to confirm that I was indeed no longer a member.

At the time of writing, nobody else on the group, save for the one who replied has said a mumbling word.

Silence can have grave consequences.

With that in mind, I would now like to zoom out from the personal to the global, of which the treatment of Africans in Ukraine is but a part.

I would argue that many silences – especially the deliberate silencing of voices of peace and reason – have brought us perhaps to the brink of World War III, and perhaps of a nuclear catastrophe. It is sad to note how Paul Robeson’s words, written in 1958 during enforced house arrest in his country, ring true today. Referring to 1930s Europe in his book, Here I Stand, he recalled that "The years that I lived abroad witnessed the rise of fascism: the crash of martial music and the sound of marching jackboots drowned out the songs of peace and brotherhood."

He talked of fascism. Today we talk (or we don’t talk) of neo-fascism. Let’s talk about it. As recently as December 2021, a vote was held in the UN on a resolution “Combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism, and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

121 countries (mostly Global Majority countries, and including Israel, not surprisingly) voted in favour; 53 (mostly Eastern European and many Western European: England, France and Germany included) abstained, and 2 voted against the motion: United States and, er, Ukraine. This despite the much-lauded President Volodymyr Zelenskyy being Jewish.

This raises two questions:
1. Zelenskyy notwithstanding, could this explain the vicious, murderous treatment of Africans at this time of grave threats coming both from bombs and from neo-fascist, white supremacist groups now being armed by other Western countries? 2: Does this illustrate some kind of benign hold that the US has over Ukraine? Many suggest that the Ukrainian government is a puppet regime installed after a US-inspired coup in 2014, and that this (and not Putin) led directly to the current situation.

Putin is not the Russian people, yet they – whether at home or in the Diaspora - are starting to suffer as a result of having an evil, despotic tyrant in power. That he was genuinely democratically elected is of course open to question, but what about leaders of the great Western countries that teach the world how to do democracy, by force if necessary? Were there no alternatives? It might be instructive to hear two voices “of peace” that were drowned out by the noise that brought us some of our current NATO leaders.

I remember thinking we were in big, big trouble when, during the 2016 US elections, this happened:

Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC all broadcast Trump's empty podium instead of Clinton's big speech. Hillary Clinton, who had already admitted her role in the 2009 Honduran coup, was the Democrats’ preferred candidate. 

And as her Party and the media feigned disgust, they completely ignored Bernie Sanders, even as he drew bigger crowds than anyone else. His thoughts on NATO? Among other things, he was against its expansion to include new member states, “because it risks provoking military conflict with Russia.” 

Bernie was thwarted by the media and by the Democratic Party (and Obama) both in 2016 and 2020, and now we have Joe Biden, despite a rather bad smell emanating from his and his son’s dealings in, er, Ukraine.

Here in the UK, we have Boris Johnson, the compulsive liar with misogynism and racism challenges, and a certain opacity about his party’s links to Russian oligarchs. Two abiding, very contrasting images from the last two General Election campaigns are: Johnson hiding from reporters in a dairy fridge in 2019, and Jeremy Corbyn being cheered by hundreds of thousands at Glastonbury in 2017. 

Corbyn’s rock-star-like popularity saw him miss becoming Prime Minister in 2017 by less than 2,500 votes, which was such a shock for the Establishment and Corbyn’s own fellow Labour MPs that they went into overdrive in their efforts to damage him politically. The media and the Establishment ridiculed him on any issue at every opportunity, this tweet from Lord Digby Jones being a perfect example:

Q: Who said “NATO should shut up shop, give up, go home & go away.”
A: Jeremy Corbyn just five years ago
Vote Labour; get a clear & present danger to our Country as its Leader.

The Establishment hatchet job was completed when in the final days of the 2019 race, the Archbishop of Canterbury lent his weight to Anti-Semitism allegations against Corbyn’s Labour. Strangely however, Labour has lost tens of thousands of members since Corbyn stepped down, and we now have the bizarre situation whereby it is reported that Jews are almost five times more likely to face
antisemitism charges than non-Jewish members
. Doesn’t such a statistic suggest  that whatever the truth or falsehood of allegations of anti-Semitism under Corbyn, Labour is certainly manifesting it much more under Keir Starmer? If one wants to examine with an open mind whether the extent of the problem during Corbyn’s time was exaggerated, one could watch the trailer for an undercover documentary, The Lobby. It never made it onto any major broadcasting channels, and I presume the American version also remains largely unseen. They point the finger at Israel, suggesting that Corbyn was the biggest victim in a well-designed, deliberate campaign to besmirch her critics.

Ukrainians are currently suffering as badly as any people anywhere can suffer. We all feel for them, as is abundantly clear from the amount of coverage their plight is getting. The pictures are indeed horrific. So too, however, are similar pictures that we are not currently seeing coming out of Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia or Tigray, for example. This is troubling, and we should ask ourselves how complicit we are in the singling out of Ukrainians for compassion because they are, to quote their deputy chief prosecutor, “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair,” or “pure Aryans,” in (neo-)Nazi-speak.

Furthermore, because of their crazed, despotic president, millions of ordinary Russians at home and abroad are also suffering, but it seems for the moment that they don’t matter as much as Ukrainians. Among the Russian victims are artists: people who enrich, inspire and transform other people’s lives with their words, music, dance, art and so on. As they contemplate dwindling incomes, certain other operators are making a killing (pardon the pun): arms dealers, and the many politicians around the planet in their pockets. A wonderful documentary, The Shadow World illustrates this beautifully, and its maker very cleverly opens the trailer with this very candid boast from an arms dealer:  “The thing about politicians is that they are very much like prostitutes, but only more expensive.” The cast list in the trailer alone includes, in order of appearance, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, George W Bush, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George H W Bush, Richard Nixon, and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki.

If it were possible to find anything positive from the current situation, it would be the hope that the desperate plight of so many “Aryans” might increase empathy for people fleeing terrible situations elsewhere. One could hope for more scepticism from citizens about what their politicians and their media feed them, and point to why journalists like Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal  and Craig Murray, but not others, end up in jail. Epithets like Cop Killer, or Rapist (respectively in the case of the first two) exist to discourage you from accessing their output, such as this wikileaks-shared cable. 

When I heard snippets of Zelenskyy’s speech to the UK Parliament, and the rapturous reception it received, a certain play came to mind. Considering him alongside most recent and current so-called leaders of the free world (many of whom use great oratory to profess to be peace makers),  I am reminded of Moliere’s Tartuffe, the impostor.

What has all this got to do with Bryanston OBs? The treatment of my fellow Africans in Ukraine triggered that memory of my experience at Calais in 1979. In 2022, I am addressed in a disrespectful, offensive way in a Facebook group, given no explanation or apology and then kicked off the group with hardly a murmur in my defence. Three of the four people I subsequently asked for help didn’t respond. In my opinion, such apparent disinterest in abuses of power leads, at a macro level, to the kinds of politicians we have today. The admin provoked me, and I felt justified in identifying him on the Bryanston ex pupils Facebook page.

On a world scale, Putin was provoked - maybe even goaded - by generations of (mostly) men who belong with him in jail. The rest of us should use whatever peaceful weapons we have at our disposal to spread love and peace, and to seek justice for victims of corruption and war, whether they be blue-eyed and blonde-haired, or Black like me.

Tayo Aluko

The above is an adapted version of a blog posted in the Bryanston ex pupils Facebook page on 10 March 2022.


Sunday, 8 August 2021

Journalism Died, July 2021. Pour the Champagne!

The voices of two great journalists fell silent at the end of July 2021.

Glen Ford, who died on July 28, was first recruited to read the news on his father’s music radio programme in Georgia in 1961, at the age of eleven. By the late 1980s, Glen had co-founded a Rap Music radio syndicate which provided a platform, on 66 radio stations, for many young Black American artists to express themselves artistically and politically. The independent music labels associated with the syndicate were slowly bought up by corporate interests, and before long, the politics was overtaken by the misogyny and profanity that is now more commonly associated with the genre.

Ford went on to co-found the Mutual Radio Network in Washington DC; America’s Black Forum – a weekly television programme, then The Black Commentator (, and finally, Black Agenda Report, of which he was Executive Editor until his death, and which also had a radio and a TV component. With his experience and track record, Ford could have been a media mogul, but his intention was always to provide news, analysis and commentary of national and world events from the Black Left perspective, and he was therefore accepting of, and philosophical about the fact that he would hardly ever be seen on mainstream media. Even Democracy Now! stopped inviting him on after a frosty debate with then-Obamite Michael Eric Dyson.

He was especially unpopular with avid supporters of Barack Obama. When Obama first started being noticed as an Illinois senator, Ford and a colleague at The Black Commentator were immediately suspicious of the sudden removal of an anti-war speech from the politician’s website. They questioned him constantly over a period of weeks (they found him a willing, accessible interviewee, at first) and finally sent him a last set of questions about his intentions were he to become a US Senator. Ford would say years later, “I’ve never regretted a political decision as much as having passed Barack Obama when he should have failed the test.” He would later refer to the president constantly as “not the lesser evil, but the more effective evil,” when compared with Bush, or his Republican rivals, McCain and Romney.  Furthermore, Obama's and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacies were diametrically opposed, Ford opined, and he argued that Obama's effect on the continent of his father's birth was disastrous.

Ford was particularly scathing about other Black American politicians, dubbing them “the Black Mis-LeadershipClass,” for what he saw as their complicity in the exploitation of the global majority. Always part of a very small group of lone voices in the wilderness (he estimated that BAR had an audience of about 25,000), he lived relatively unscathed to the age he did probably because with such figures, he never posed a real threat to the establishment.

The same cannot be said of Craig Murray, who has over 93,000 followers on Twitter. By comparison, the editor of the Times has 7,000, and the Guardian’s has 113,000. Thanks to social media and to the sheer quality of his blog (, he has a reach of literally millions. He had lost his job as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan after turning whistle-blower and exposing the Tony Blair government’s complicity in torture programmes. 

Since then, his blog has been a counter to what he describes as relentless state propaganda. Three examples of stories he has very rationally demonstrated the untrustworthiness of mainstream media’s coverage of are 1: The case against Julian Assange; 2: The Skripal affair; and 3: The Alex Salmond trial. His dispatches regarding this last case strongly suggested that Salmond, the former leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, was set up by his successor and those around her. The defence case was that these people concocted false allegations of sexual impropriety by Salmond against several women. This would have landed Salmond in jail, had a majority-female jury not cleared him of all charges. On all these, Murray’s journalism was in a class above all the major outlets - the BBC included - and adds credence to his suggestion that the Scottish and UK governments are corrupt, the SNP hierarchy has little interest in Scottish Independence (the reason for which the party exists) but is maintaining a charade in collusion with Westminster, and finally, the mainstream media does little more than just spread government propaganda.

In many countries, such brave journalism could send you to an early grave, or to jail. Scotland has shown itself to be one such country, for Murray was found guilty of contempt of court, for the curious charge of "possible jigsaw identification" of Salmond's accusers. The trial was held in Scotland (without a jury), and the Supreme Court in London refused to hear his appeal, giving him and his supporters the sense that this was very much a political conviction arranged between London and Edinburgh.

Tremendous outrage was shared on social media, and demonstrations were held in Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen. Murray finally surrendered himself to police in Edinburgh on August 1, amid dozens of supporters who had gathered to wish him well. They sang Auld Lang Syne, and raised a toast to him over champagne. 

Mainstream media reported none of this. The British public, on the whole, does not know that a journalist has become the first media person to be imprisoned for contempt of court in Scotland in 70 years, or that the charge was designed to ensnare him alone among all journalists.

Rather worryingly, the National Union of Journalists has been totally silent on the matter. This is hardly surprising, as the NUJ’s leadership, in apparent contravention of the union’s rules, prevented Murray from renewing his membership in 2020, citing objections from persons unknown. This reminds me of a quip I heard once: that bosses of a construction union, and many of its members, would happily agree to build a prison for construction workers only, just to keep themselves in work for a while.

One is also reminded of Pastor Niemöller’s poem, “First, they came,” to which there is this pithy adaptation:

First they came for the journalists
And I did not speak out, because
I was not a journalist.
We don’t know what happened next

But we do: authoritanianism and fascism.

Journalists like Glen Ford and Craig Murray have given us, at huge personal sacrifice, valuable weapons with which to fight: information. Thankfully, there are others in their mould still standing. Murray will be out in a few months, and even though Ford won’t be back, there is this line of inspiration from a dissident Greek poet:

You tried to bury me, but you forgot I was a seed.

Rest in Power, Glen Ford. We pour some drops of champagne into the earth in your honour. And see you again soon, Craig Murray.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Washing Away All African Blood.

A Personal Study of Historic and Contemporary Institutional Racism As Revealed in Some of Liverpool’s Buildings and Spaces.

“I have not come here to be insulted by a set of wretches, every brick in whose infernal town is cemented with an African’s blood.”

So George F. Cooke, 18th Century actor, is supposed to have responded to an audience admonishing him for being obviously drunk at Liverpool’s Theatre Royal, Williamson Square sometime in the early 1770s. 
Theatre Royal, Williamson Square.
Source: The Internet  Archive and University of Toronto. 

Though the building no longer exists, the story lingers to remind us of the truth of Liverpool’s unquestioned central role in one of the major forces that shaped the world as we know it today. 

The Shakespeare Theatre.
Over a century later, in another theatre- The Shakespeare - a stone’s throw away, a young Black American actor was appearing in a play in which his character was required to whistle. He was totally incapable of doing this, so he was asked to sing instead. Somewhere on Fraser Street, Liverpool, where there is now only a car park, was heard on the professional stage for the first time in Britain, the glorious singing voice of Paul Robeson.

Charles Wotten plaque
Image: Dan Lewis
One wonders how welcome Robeson felt on that his first visit to the city, for only three years earlier - June 5, 1919, the city had witnessed a race riot in which a young Black man was chased by a mob into the river at Queen’s Dock, pelted with rocks, and drowned. His name was Charles Wotten, and he has been memorialized on a plaque on a three-foot-high stone dock bollard since early 2017. Some may consider it unsatisfactory that Liverpool’s first race riot of the 20th century - and its only victim - should be marked in so remote and seemingly so insignificant a spot, but that was not always the case. In 1974, with support from Liverpool City Council and in recognition of the fact that there was poor representation of Black people in higher education, the Charles Wootton [sic] College for Further Education was set up, and it catered primarily to Black people from the Liverpool 8 area, and the city. “The Charlie,” as locals called it, was housed in a converted Georgian building at 248 Upper Parliament Street and became something of a landmark in the city: one that not only kept the young man’s name alive, but also became a symbol for Black self-help and advancement in a city that has always struggled with its slave-trading history. Sadly, the Charlie closed its doors in 1994, for reasons too numerous and complex to address here, seemingly reflecting a halt in the progress that it represented. The building is now an anonymous block of flats, with no indication that it was ever a significant part of Liverpool’s Black History.
Stanley House Youth
Source: Liverpool 8 and Liverpool 1
Old Photos Group (facebook) 
A few blocks away, one comes to a much more modern building, Gladstone Court - another block of flats. It occupies the site of what was once Stanley House, a community centre opened in 1946 for the local Black community, with funding from the Colonial Office.

At its height, it provided activities and facilities for all ages, literally from cradle to grave. In its basement, a Black vocal group called The Chants was formed in the early 1960s.

They so impressed two white musicians that they persuaded the singers to let their group of four white boys be their opening act in one of their gigs some weeks later.

The Derelict Stanley House
replaced by Gladstone Court
Source: Philip Mayer, flickr

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, like countless other white musicians, had also been regular attendees at many of the dozens of clubs on and around Upper Parliament Street – like the Gladray, The Pink Flamingo, The Beacon, The Somali, Rachael’s, The Nigerian, where Black musicians from Liverpool and beyond, played all kinds of music from the US, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere - on their way to creating what would eventually become known as the Mersey Beat. It is likely however that most tourists travelling from the Cavern Club or the Beatles Museum to Penny Lane would drive along Upper Parliament Street or Princes Avenue without realizing how much modern Pop Music was spawned behind the facades and in the basements of the buildings they were driving past.

The father of the founder of the aforementioned group, The Chants, had first arrived in Liverpool from the Gold Coast (Ghana) around 1930, and soon became organist and choirmaster at a church called The African Churches Mission, started in 1931 by a Nigerian man called Pastor Daniels Ekarte. From the Mission, Pastor Daniels provided food and shelter to the poor of the Dingle area of Toxteth, to many Black immigrants who found themselves homeless or destitute, and to children abandoned by white mothers because they were the result of liaisons with Black men, some of them American GIs stationed nearby in WWII. For 33 years, he heroically continued with this work despite being repeatedly denied assistance from the City Council, and finally the Mission was demolished in 1964. In the early 2000s, a housing association built a block of flats on that site. It would have been nice if they had named it after Pastor Daniels, but they didn’t.

John Archer Hall
One building nearby actually bears the name of probably Liverpool’s most illustrious Black son. Born near the Brownlow Hill Workplace in 1863 to a Barbadian father and Irish mother, John Archer became Britain’s first (or second, if recent research is correct) Black mayor, in the Battersea borough of London, fifty years later. A fine portrait of him, painted about fifteen years ago by a Liverpool-born Black artist hangs proudly in Liverpool’s Town Hall, and at the junction between Upper Hill Street and Windsor Street in Toxteth, John Archer Hall is a well-used building, among whose uses are as an arts venue, offices for some Third Sector companies, and a community garden. Mr. Archer would be proud that his name is associated with such worthy causes so long after his death, but it would ironically also support the argument that as a Liverpool-born Black person, you often have to leave Liverpool to succeed professionally.

Many immigrants do thrive though - right there on Upper Parliament Street itself, one will find several African doctors working in the Women’s Hospital. In my own case, having completed my training at the Liverpool School of Architecture in 1992, I fared pretty well as a self-employed architect in the years leading up to, and following the millennium, with buildings here and around the North West. When I decided in the mid-2000s to become a developer however, things began to unravel, to such an extent that in 2009 I was forced to liquidate my architectural and property development companies. I did keep a community-interest company dormant, with the aim of resurrecting it at some future date, in case any of my “dreams deferred” looked like they might one day come to fruition.

52-56 Upper Parliament St.
Sales Brochure (2008)
The site remains undeveloped

Prior to that, shattered dreams included a showcase green block of flats which needed financial support from Liverpool City Council to fill a funding shortfall due to the expense of green technologies. After about two years of asking, the Council finally said they would consider providing some funding the following year, but this came too late to prevent the site being repossessed by the lending institution. Elsewhere, I was gazumped by a Housing Association on another site owned by Sefton Council, without correct due diligence procedures having been followed. I tried to stand my ground, and eventually an investigation was commissioned by the Housing Corporation (now Homes England). The association’s own auditors were engaged, and they never asked me a single question. Their report, obtained only after an intervention by my MP, confirmed lack of due process but still cleared the organisation on a technicality. A few years later, Cosmopolitan Housing Association went bust, and the ratings agency Moody’s downgraded the credit rating of the entire Social Housing sector, citing poor regulation as a major factor in their decision. After about five years out of the game (I have been touring nationally and internationally as a theatrical performer since 2008), another idea emerged – for a multi-generational housing community on a site owned by Liverpool City Council in East Liverpool, for which I negotiated a three-year Option to secure planning approval, partnership and finance. I revived my community-interest company (CIC) and very, very slowly (almost three years) got to a position where I accepted a lucrative partnership offer from a private-sector developer, although they weren’t interested in the initial idea, and even less so in the CIC. I requested more time from the council, and permission to change the CIC to a Limited Company. They took four months to grant a three-month extension and to inform me, without explanation, that I couldn’t change the company status. That developer walked away, and I was left with a few months to find alternatives. I was making progress with that, but the Council wouldn’t give any more time and withdrew the Option in February, reclaiming the site with the benefit of the planning permission I had obtained and paid for, with the loss of five years’ work and thousands of pounds to me personally.

62 Rodney Street
Someone suggested that if I had drugs money to launder, it would have been a different story. I won't comment other than to say that even here, one can find historical precedent. One particular house on Rodney Street (named after the Admiral that saved Jamaica for the Crown against France), No. 62 was built by one John Gladstone, owner of slave plantations in Jamaica and Demerera. When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, Gladstone received the largest compensation on record - £83 million in today's money. His son William would become British Prime Minister four times.

Had my dreams come to fruition, I wouldn’t have been the first Black developer, or entrepreneur, in the city. Most of the clubs mentioned earlier were Black owned, though they no longer exist. It would be difficult to list the number of Black-owned lodging houses (where else would Black people find accommodation up to the middle of the last century?) that were compulsorily acquired in a so-called slum clearance, and made way for the expansion of the University in the 1960s. Much more recently, another Nigerian made national headlines when his company succeeded in developing many homes for some housing associations in the city in the mid 2000s. His company sadly no longer exists, and his recounting of the difficulties he had along the way may suggest one of the reasons. Sneaking a peak at his file during a meeting with a bank manager once, he told the Observer, he saw a card on which was written, 'Black, Nigerian, Liverpool, Living in Toxteth, High Risk.'

Following the Liverpool 8 uprising (the local description of the “Toxteth riots” of 1981), the Granby Triangle, the former centre of Liverpool’s Black population, is only now recovering from over thirty years of blight, as the vast majority of millions of pounds of regeneration money that flowed into the city as a result of the uprising seemed to bypass the area.

The 1989 Gifford Report on the uprising confirmed what the community had warned about in the years leading up to the riots: that such an explosion was inevitable because racial discrimination in the city was “uniquely horrific.” This would certainly have been at the back of the minds of the city’s leaders when in December 1999 they issued a formal letter of apology for the city’s involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It reads in part: “The City Council hereby commits itself to work closely with Liverpool communities and partners and with peoples of those countries which have carried the burden of the slave trade. The Council also commits itself to programmes of action with full participation of Liverpool's Black communities which will seek to combat all forms of racism and discrimination and will recognise and respond to the city's multiracial inheritance and celebrate the skills and talent of all its people."    

Twenty years on, I am sorry not to be able to offer myself as an example of this commitment having been met, nor does anybody else readily come to mind. I can however try to see what else is happening in the heart of Black Liverpool, in the world of property development. Let’s go back to Upper Parliament Street.

The Merseyside Caribbean Centre is a small building on a large piece of land owned by the City Council, leased to the Caribbean Community since the 1960s. In its heyday in the 1990s, the centre attracted visitors from all over the country to the annual carnival and to multiple year-round events, but it closed in 2013, the site now serving mostly as a car park for the Liverpool Women’s Hospital

A community-interest Company called the African Caribbean Heritage Centre recently took up responsibility for its residual affairs, which now include dealing with a private developer (introduced to them by the council) who has drawn up a scheme for over 400 residential units, on the understanding that a new Caribbean Community Centre will be included somewhere in the development, although affordability of the flats to the local community didn’t appear to be uppermost in the developers’ or Council’s minds.
Source: Save the l8 Caribbean Centre (facebook)/
Barbara Ainsworth
One tragic story associated with the Caribbean Centre concerns the son of one of the Jamaican men who was a regular there in the 1980s. In 2005, Anthony Walker was brutally murdered by a pair of racists, in a case that gripped the nation as much as Stephen Lawrence’s murder in London had, just over a decade earlier. In addition to charitable educational foundations, these two young men are memorialized in buildings: Walker in a large room – the Anthony Walker Education Centre in the International Slavery Museum at Albert Dock, and Lawrence in a building at Greenwich University. In Liverpool, it seems that as a murder victim, you have to have been world famous and foreign to be accorded such an honour: the International Slavery Museum renamed one of their buildings after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2013, and there is a Steve Biko Court in Liverpool 8.

MLK Jr. Building
International Slavery Museum
Source: The Guide, Liverpool 
Dr. King famously spoke of his dreams of racial equality, peace and justice. Stephen Lawrence dreamed of being an architect, Anthony Walker a lawyer. One can only speculate what Charles Wotten’s dreams were before the salt water of the Mersey filled his lungs in June 1919, but they would certainly have been similar to most people’s: to be healthy, happy and well fed, and to do good for oneself, one’s family and for society in general.

I am grateful that my own dreams of developing property for social and environmental good have cost me only money, time and faith in the city I call home, and not my life. I have seen my local MP about the series of resistances I have experienced, and she has taken it up with the new Chief Executive of the Council. While one cannot expect a finding similar to that which followed the enquiry into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder (in which the Met was described as “institutionally racist”), I can’t help feeling justified in describing my treatment by Liverpool as “institutional cruelty” at the very least.

Nonetheless, I have one new dream to share. I have a dream that in a few years, the site of the former Caribbean Centre will be developed into social housing primarily for people of African descent, regardless of financial means. I have a dream that the development will be led by a community-owned company, using Black developers, architects, builders and the like. I have a dream that it will be self-sustaining, spawning several thriving community-interest companies. I have a dream that little Black boys and little Black girls will live and play there together, with their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers, all caring for one another and enjoying together beautiful music, art, stories and good, clean air. I have a dream to share. I have a dream that Liverpool City Council, with several Black men and women in its leadership, will be a national and international example of excellence in promoting community cohesion and prioritizing people over profit. I have a dream that all the contributions that Black people have made to Liverpool, and to the world from Liverpool, will be properly recognised in the naming of streets and buildings, and that people will come from far and wide to celebrate and marvel at their achievements. I have a dream to share.

I’m sure many Liverpudlians – Black, White, Brown, Yellow, whatever - would share this dream.

And the council? Well, if the extent of their creativity is to use a community-interest company’s legal status to thwart a great idea, I fear that they might be institutionally incapable of sharing this dream.


Dedicated to the memory of three men whose funerals I attended in the space of a single week at the end of June 2019:

Alhaji Captain Miftah Osi-Efa, one of the founder-members of the Al Rahma Mosque, Liverpool.
Paul Agoro, one of the founders of the Granby Residents Association, who successfully resisted plans for the wholesale demolition of the Granby Triangle.
Bala Lloyd-Evans, whose first business idea was in employment for ex offenders, but was knifed to death in an unprovoked attack. His funeral reception was held at the Caribbean Centre.

UPDATE 1, 20 Nov 2019. On September 6, following an email from Dame Louise Ellman MP to Tony Reeves, the Council's Chief Executive, a meeting was convened which included David Turner and Pauline Iveney of the Property and Asset Management Services Department (PAMS), the Council solicitor Brian Beattie, Dame Louise and myself. In the meeting PAMS stated, disingenuously, that they had informed me through my solicitor of the reasons for denying the change to a limited company. At Dame Louise's request, they promised to forward proof of this. As of November 1, this had still not been sent, and Dame Louise repeated her request, to no avail. She has now resigned as an MP.

UPDATE 2, 2 Dec 2019. The prospective Labour Parliamentary Candidate to replace Ms. Ellman is Ms. Kim Johnson, who happens to be a local Black woman. If she decides to take on this case, another piece of information she will have is that at the aforesaid meeting of September 6, PAMS confirmed that the party they were selling to (no tender, advertising, anything) is Cobalt Housing Association, with whose John Westerside I had been negotiating when the Option was terminated. What communications there had been between Cobalt and PAMS during that negotiation process will probably never be known, but my reluctance to trust housing associations is probably vindicated.

UPDATE 3, 19 Dec 2019. The Liverpool Echo reported today that two arrests were made by the police: one is the managing director of Elliot's the developer behind the thwarted take-over of the site of the Merseyside Caribbean Centre and to whom a site previously earmarked for a Slavery Memorial, St. James's Church, had been sold, for housing. The other person under investigation is the Council's Head of Regeneration, under whom PAMS serve.

UPDATE 4, 28 April 2020. My new MP, Kim Johnson, finally made contact three weeks ago. It appears that the allocation of staff to her following her election to Parliament has been particularly tardy. We have started liaising, and Covid-19 notwithstanding, I remain hopeful that her intervention will help get to the bottom of this.

UPDATE 5, 12 May 2020. On the advice of a local councillor, I submitted a formal complaint online. If not resolved to my satisfaction, it could eventually get to the Local Council Ombudsman. In going back through historic correspondence and writing it up, it seems that the case is even more shocking than I realised! It can be read here.

UPDATE 6. 3 July 2020. Complaints procedure in motion with Liverpool City Council. It is currently being investigated by a Council officer. Letter here.

UPDATE 7. 9 July 2020. Letter received today from the Council, rejecting my complaint in its entirety. I will proceed to the Local Government Ombudsman.

UPDATE 8. April 6, 2021. Local Government Ombudsman, after much correspondence, states (contrary to much apparent evidence of foul play and Council withholding of evidence) that she won't investigate the case, as she is "unlikely to find fault in the Council's actions." I requested a review of the case, pending receipt of information requested from the Council under the Freedom of Information Act, being strangely delayed.  Ombudsman would not confirm that I would be granted an extension of time in which to request the review. I referred the matter to the Information Commissioner's Office, who eventually compelled the Council to release documentation, finally received 30 October. Of the 80 pages, only 5 were of any interest, and they were heavily, or completely redacted. This basically provided me with no more information than I had at the beginning of the process. A further complaint to the ICO was referred to them, and on 29 March they wrote to say that my complaint was not upheld.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Blackface in Wales? Bryn Terfel Sings Paul Robeson

My eyebrow rose involuntarily the other day when I read that a show about Paul Robeson with Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel in the lead role had sold out months ahead of its premiere next weekend as part of the National  Eistedffodd in Cardiff. A mistake, surely? Reading the blurb, it turns out that the production has the blessing of the Robeson family and that it received generous corporate sponsorship. One other tiny detail was that Sir Bryn plays Mr. Jones, Robeson’s “greatest fan.”  (Sigh of relief).

As someone who has been performing my own Robeson play for over ten years, and putting aside the slight envy of such a large audience, corporate sponsorship and all, I am pleased that he is receiving this renewed attention, over forty years after his death.

Paul Robeson’s story not only deserves to be told, its retelling is, to my mind, desperately urgent in today’s divided world. However, there will be those who question the legitimacy of a white man being the teller of this important tale. I happen not to be one of those, for if Robeson taught me anything, it is that the human condition demands that all people struggle together for justice and for peace, that this involves sharing each other’s stories, and that those stories are often most effectively sung.

Miss Littlewood, RSC
Many British theatregoers will be familiar with the power of this combination of words and song in the work of Joan Littlewood, that famous revolutionary of the theatre, whose life story has been told in a musical Miss Littlewood at the RSC recently. Seven singer-actors share the title role. Three of those actors happened to be Black, and interestingly, the reviews I have seen don’t mention that fact.

A recent theatrical production I had the pleasure to attend also illustrates the power, not just of song as a weapon of struggle, but of people of different races and nationalities getting together to tell historical stories which have a powerful resonance today. Bread and Roses at the Oldham Coliseum told the story of the 1912 strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts where an almost entirely immigrant population of workers who had long suffered extreme exploitation at the hands of the town’s mill owners were supported by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World – the “Wobblies”) who used song as one of the weapons that eventually contributed to their victory.  

In Bread and Roses, the multiracial cast included a Black woman taking the part of the white Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The back story for the Black Flynn differed from that of the real woman, but added another dimension to the tale – the existence of a Black middle class, and solidarity and empathy across the race and class divide. That the strike was led and won by women and that it united people of disparate origins (strike meetings were reportedly held in twenty-five languages) are historical facts that can provide inspiration and instruction to us today, as our leaders continue to try to divide us and scare us with the threat of unbridled immigration.

Bread and Roses’s  run in Oldham was short, and it would be a travesty not to revive it for a national tour and a long run in London (Miss Littlewood’s Theatre Royal Stratford East would be a fitting home). Over a century after the story it brilliantly told unfolded, all the issues are with us today, thanks to the divisive economics and politics of the ensuing decades. For those lamenting the ongoing decline of Trade Unionism here and internationally, the show will be nothing short of inspiring, and can even be used as a recruiting tool with which to revive the movement, as the stories of numerous brave individuals, told beautifully through song, will certainly touch the hearts of all but the emotionally dead.

Trade Unions and song are central to the bonds that link Paul Robeson to Wales, for it was the singing of members of their miners union who had marched to London to highlight their plight that drew Robeson’s attention, and won them his unrelenting support subsequently. It is
therefore absolutely fitting for a Welshman to tell his story today.

In the film that Robeson made with the miners telling the story about that strike – Proud Valleywhen in response to one miner objecting to a Black man being given a job down the mine, one leader retorted, “We’re all black down ‘ere, aren't we?”

So sing on, Sir Bryn, and pob lwc.

Tayo Aluko is the writer and performer of Call Mr. Robeson and Just An Ordinary Lawyer

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Fictions, The Truths, The Songs of Empire

"My client, a petty criminal, was accused of involvement in a jewellers’ robbery. For once, he had a cast-iron alibi, but presenting the truth in court would jeopardise British national security. You see, on the night in question, he was in Nairobi, not London. He had gone on His Majesty’s service, with a sack full British Pounds. His mission was to recruit willing Kenyans to testify against one Jomo Kenyatta, implicating him in being a leader in the Mau Mau."

This scenario is described by Tunji Sowande, a Nigerian barrister in London, referring to his most memorable case, from 1954.

Actually, it’s fiction. Most - well, some of it. The fictional parts are the character of the petty criminal, the robbery and the impending court case. The first of the two “truths” is that the British Government of the day indeed manufactured evidence against the man who eventually became the first President of independent Kenya. They bribed Kenyans to present this “purchased evidence” in court, and Kenyatta was thrown in jail for seven years. The seeds had been sewn in the British psyche that the Mau Mau (or the Kenya Land and Freedom Army to use the name they gave themselves) – the movement resisting the occupation of their land by White settlers were not freedom fighters but terrorists wantonly massacring innocent people who had the misfortune of belonging to a race that went to spread civilisation, Christianity and farming knowledge to this part of “the Dark Continent.” The fact that the climate was particularly favourable, and the land extremely fertile and rich in precious minerals was “purely coincidental, your Honour.”

Evidence that Kenyatta and his “co-conspirators” presented in their defence probably included that of a man who claimed to have had his nails and buttocks pierced with a sharp pin, been suspended upside down with his hands and legs tied together, and had his testicles crushed with parallel metallic rods - by White British officers. The circumstances were extraordinary of course, because as we all know, the British are otherwise kind, decent chaps.  The victim, on the other hand, has a lot to answer for: had he not evaded capture for so long, a Trump Presidency would be the product of an overly-fertile imagination.

Let me explain: castration was a weapon by Whites against Blacks (and others) – in Africa, the Caribbean, the United States and elsewhere. If that victim had been successfully castrated, say just ten years earlier, he wouldn’t have fathered the boy who would eventually travel to America and impregnate the White woman who would then give birth to one Barack Hussein Obama. I rest my case...

The second “truth” is the fact that Tunji Sowande really did exist. Born in colonial Nigeria in 1912, he chose a different path to Kenyatta, studying law in London and staying. Overcoming the predictable racism of the time, he became a barrister, later Britain’s first Black Head of Chambers and eventually first Black judge.  He also loved cricket, and in 1978 became a full member of a club you practically have to be born into – the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), whose ground is Lord’s, and whose committee used to select England Test sides.

How more “Establishment” could a Nigerian become in England? Once “in” however, Sowande revealed his revolutionary side, and opened doors for others. Long before the word became part of liberal parlance, his chambers was the epitome of diversity – by race, gender and even sexuality. This according to one of his protégés - a woman who before meeting him had struggled for long to get a tenancy because her father was Sri Lankan. Kim Hollis, Britain’s first ever minority female QC is now Director of Public Prosecutions in the British Virgin Islands.
Outside of law and cricket, Sowande travelled Europe and the UK as a musician, equally at home in jazz clubs as a drummer and saxophonist as he was singing in nursing homes or the Temple Church in London’s Inns of Court.

Never seen in public without a fine jacket and bow tie, this dapper, quiet, unassuming man was apparently not a political animal. However, one assumes that he observed the events of the day – the jailing of that well-known terrorist, Nelson Mandela; the Vietnam war; King’s assassination; anti-colonial struggles and civil wars in Africa – with considerable interest, even if not with as much passion as cricket.

One can only speculate what he would make of today’s world, but I humbly submit that beyond reasonable doubt, even the most strident of “little-Englanders” would accept and welcome Tunji Sowande as “a good immigrant.”

Just An Ordinary Lawyer. A play, with songs, written and performed by Tayo Aluko is at Theatro Technis, 38 Crowndale Road, London NW1 1TT between 11 and 28 January, at Theatre Royal, Bath on 16 January 2017, and touring.    

Friday, 22 January 2016

Paul Robeson: 40 Years Dead

“'Kill the N****r Commie.' One of the placards said that. There were dozens of them, but that’s the only one I recall (I was only seven). And they were all screaming and shouting, those white men and women. Then he started to sing, with this impressive, commanding, deep voice. By the time the second song started, the placards had all come down, and they were all listening.  I thought then that if music can do this, I want to play music.”

77-year-old retired drummer and plumber Roger Blank related this story last Sunday, after a Martin Luther King Day musical celebration at a Baptist Church in Brooklyn which included excerpts from a play about Paul Robeson. That encounter of his with Robeson had taken place in New Rochelle in 1946, at a rally in support of Henry Wallace’s unsuccessful campaign for President under the Progressive Party ticket.

Three years later however, another mob was less susceptible to Robeson’s artistry, and the outdoor concert resulted in what would become the infamous Peeksill riots - arguably one of the lowest points in modern American history, and an episode that lurks too dangerously in the subconscious, given its contemporary resonances.

Robeson, apart from being probably the most famous American artist in the 1930s as a singer of hundreds of songs and spirituals (Ol’ Man River being his most famous), and as a stage and screen actor, was also a forerunner of the civil rights movement. He was referred to as “The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Blacks at the height of his fame. It seems something of an injustice that he remains largely hidden from public consciousness when compared to Dr. King, or even Malcolm X, who was himself assassinated days before a scheduled meeting with Robeson – requested by the young minister in recognition of the older man’s pioneering activism and personal sacrifice.

Today, most young activists (and even many middle-aged ones) of any complexion would struggle to recognize Robeson’s name, despite the fact that many of his sayings in the first half of the twentieth century can be applied to today’s national and international situation. Which supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement would argue with such dramatic action as leading a delegation to the United Nations in 1951 to lay a charge of genocide against Black people by their own country – not just through police and civilian brutality and violence, but through wide economic and health disadvantage? And for those who stress that ALL lives matter, he wrote of his personal “belief in the oneness of humankind, about which I have often spoken in concerts and elsewhere, [which] has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race ... There is truly a kinship among us all, a basis for mutual respect and brotherly love.” And peace campaigners today would surely agree with his 1946 speech in which he declared that The absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.”

The sudden and dramatic slide in his popularity began in April 1949 when he made a speech at the World Peace Congress in Paris suggesting that African Americans would not fight against the Soviet Union because they remained second-class citizens in their own country. Such a stance continues to land people in trouble decades later (most notably Muhammed Ali), illustrating how far ahead of his time he was. His mass appeal as an entertainer, when combined with his love for the Soviet Union, his socialism and internationalism, transformed him into one of the most dangerous people in the country in the establishment’s eyes, and the campaign to discredit and denounce him went into full gear immediately after that Paris speech. Those efforts to suppress his story have been largely successful, and in fact, it can be said that his character, career and reputation were assassinated and buried years before he actually died forty years ago - on January 23, 1976.

Despite whichever of his views can be considered to have been mistaken (particularly his unrelenting support for Stalin, some argue), or the phenomenon of Barack Obama, the fact that Robeson’s words ring so true today suggest that he needs to at least be part of the national conversation. He embodied the truth that through art, people’s hearts, minds and souls could be transformed. The 7-year-old Roger Blank would grow up to tour the country and the world with great artists like Sun Ra, Clark Terry and Sonny Rollins, not to make money, he says, but to “spread peace and be part of changing the rhythm of people’s lives, their spirit.”

Mr. Blank would agree with the beautiful words of the playwright Marc Connelly, who wrote this in tribute to Robeson on the occasion of his 44th birthday: “I suppose by that dreary instrument, the calendar, it can be contended that you are the contemporary of your friends. But by more important standards of time measurement, you really represent a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some lucky accident, we are privileged to appreciate today.” 
He would also agree that even though it would be pure fantasy hope for a day for Robeson in the national calendar, the fortieth anniversary of his death should not go unmarked today.

Tayo Aluko is the British-Nigerian writer and performer of the award-winning play Call Mr. Robeson. 

Some 40th anniversary events: