Cold War exhibition – subtly inclusive

I wasn’t going to see it, but being a member of The National Archives’ User Advisory Group, we had a special tour of the Cold War exhibition.

The exhibition focuses on the British home front – perfect for a nation’s archive, but how in this day and age of everything having to be diverse, did they manage it?

With subtlety and taste.

You enter into a mock government bunker giving an overview of the Cold war – it just can’t ignore the superpowers of the day. Spies and MI5/6 with Dame Stella Rimington dispelling the myths of James Bond and emphasising how ‘boring’ intelligence work really is in comparison.

Next, into a typical middle-class British home to see how the Cold War impacted daily life. Civil defence measures and protective spaces in the home in case of a nuclear attack give a good idea of how life changed as politicians grappled with how to deal with something out of their control – should an attack take place. TV, music, film and books make an appearance, the mock-up under the stair refuge speaking to many in the UK and others who have read about, or seen pictures of, a typical terrace house.

But the inclusive part comes at the end when visitors are invited to share their experiences, type them up on old ‘tick tick’ typewriters and post them on the info board. Stimulated by our whistelstop tour, we verbally shared our experiences: Some spoke of their parents having been involved as scientists, others their experience of being in another European country while some had no idea of preventative measures at the time. By all accounts, some schools made a point of not scaremongering. Our 1980s experiences in South Africa, although not directly nuclear attack oriented, were similar during the Cold War years. My last years of school were peppered with ‘bomb evacuations’ as students or their friends phoned in to have a test or exam deferred. Even if a crank call was suspected, we had to take it seriously and became adept at packing things up and filing out to the playing fields at least twice a week. Thank goodness it doesn’t rain as frequently in South Africa as Britain…

At primary school, in the early 1980s, we quickly learned to discern between the ‘fire alarm’ or ‘get out alarm’ and the ‘baracade alert’. The latter being where doors were closed to stop attackers getting in, but windows were opened to reduce the impact of shattering glass, desks were pushed together and chairs and schoolbags packed around to create the walls to our makeshift ‘caves’. On the occasions we had to evacuate, I could never understand why we had to line up beautifully in rows along the perimeter of the school grounds near open fields – and one specially trained Civil Defence teacher was allowed to carry a hand-gun: to protect 1000 of us! Thankfully, children were not the target in South Africa’s ‘Cold War’.

And our literature? I recall Neville Shute’s On the beach being the best read. We were split: move to Australia where you could possibly miss the fall out of a northern hemisphere attack or move to the north anticipating where the bomb would explode so you’d be killed and not have to suffer the consequences. Incredible how the power of suggestion worked/still works.

Intriguingly, it was only discussing the exhibition with someone who hadn’t been with us at the time that I realised how subtly inclusive the exhibition had been and how conditioned we’ve become to having inclusivity thrust in out faces and blatently obvious. True inclusivity is not always obvious at a glance.

For a topic as broad as the Cold War, a point of departure was needed. Something compact. And this was achieved though the home front approach – all based on documents in the archive, but there is so much more hidden in the files as I discovered some time ago [May 2009] before narrowing my focus to WW1 and Africa.

If you’re in the neighbourhood and the exhibition is still on, it’s definitely worth a visit – you can even see how nuclear weapons have grown in impact – and for those with children, there are appropriate activities for them to do.

And for anyone wondering, the song Duck and Cover which I remember watching when we did a module on Propaganda in my MA in History was 1950s USA. In the UK, there was Protect and Survive in the 1970s.

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Reviews: WW1 history through Art

I’m not a great one on works of art. I know what I like and what I don’t but ask me for more than that and I’m stuck. Words are my thing. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of photos to the historian – for what they tell you that words don’t or can’t. Photos concerning the Lake Tanganyika expedition are a case in point. More recently, though I’ve begun to realise that art produced after the time is a good indicator of how the memory of events has developed. This final year of the centenary of the Great War has provided an opportunity to see four (well three in their entirety)  artistic exhibitions on the war.

The first was William Kentridge’s Head and the load, previously reviewed. Next was Aftermath at Tate Britain which I saw with a friend, followed by a first-day viewing of the Singularity of Peace exhibition in partnership with Forgotten Heroes in Hammersmith and then a taster of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Of the three later exhibitions, that of Singularity of Peace was my favourite. Yes, perhaps my bias at having worked with the book The Unknown Fallen which gives rise to the exhibits is part of it, but it is also the most human and African. I’ve also discovere I’m not really a moving visual fan so solid art takes preference in my books.

Regarding Aftermath, what was significant was the absence of Africa in any of the pieces – both those created during the war and after. It shows how little attention was given to labour and behind the scenes (or is that indicative of the curators who selected the pieces for display?). The exhibition is explicit in stating that it is about French, British and German art and in this, it doesn’t fail. It was fascinating to see the different artistic styles around a similar theme. And of the pieces on display, those which most appealed to me were: Otto Griebel, Clive Branson, Curt Querner, Glynn Waren Philpott’s Entrance to the Tragada, and Edward Burra’s Les Folies de Belleville. The last two because they gave a hint of Africa and ‘other’ being involved, although both these are post war, 1931 and 1928 respectively. The first three for getting to the heart of man. Many of the war-time images showed little new (at least to those of us not familiar with the detail). In this category the remain of a sculpture hanging from the ceiling was probably the most moving.

The Unknown Fallen felt like a return home. All the familiar photos were there – large and small – now juxtaposed against windows showing buildings being constructed. In addition to the familiar, were pieces from the Never Such Innocence awards – wonderful to see them in original form compared to print. And then there were some new pieces which had been created specially for the exhibition – artwork from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the UK all depicting the aftermath of war and a move towards peace. This exhibition was also the most basic in that it was a form of ‘pop up’ art – an opportunity seized. Again, I discover I prefer the rough and ready to the perfectly choreographed.

Finally, Mimesis by John Akomfrah. Despite the publicity it hadn’t struck me that this was a 75 minute sit down and watch exhibition until the person I was lunching with mentioned it. I happened to be at the IWM to do some research and thought I’d whizz through – not expecting much given what I’d previously seen in the new WW1 display. I’m afraid I lasted about 10 minutes – it was definitely too innovative and obscure for me. And then an Australian or New Zealand flag appeared in the picture – I thought this was about Africans in World War 1… so on my way out made a particular point about reading the ‘blurb’ at the entrance: it mentions “African and colonial soldiers” so don’t be deceived by the title of the production. How much of the 75 minutes is about the colonial contribution I cannot say, I was lost with a person sitting on a chair under a solitary tree in a desert with the tree wrapped in red, who then fell over as though shot. Then a bed with a red matress in the desert with a solitary woman walking in the distance… and I’m not sure the men were dressed appropriately for WW1, so in effect I spent the 10 minutes I was there trying to work out how this all could potentially relate to the war I know with music so loud my ear drumbs reverberated and no words or language to guide me. I’m clearly a child of the past. One day I might find 75 minutes to explore the whole show and what is says about remembrance, but for now will rely on what others have to say.

Review: Percy Sillitoe by AW Cockerill

Not too long ago I heard someone who had become head of MI5 (the British internal secret service) had served in East Africa during World War 1. As can be imagined, this got the cogs going and eventually the name Percy Sillitoe was revealed as the man.

The opportunity to divert from immedate research priorities came with having to prepare my talk on the formation of the Legion of Frontiersmen and MI5/6. Surprisingly, there was no direct link but it is clear that Sillitoe’s experiences in Africa set him in good stead for his future career back in the UK.

In short, Sillitoe ended up in Africa with the BSAP (British South Africa Police) in 1911, moving to the NRP (Northern Rhodesia Police) soon after. It was in this capacity that he saw service in World War 1 on the Northern Rhodesia – Congo border, before being taken ill requiring some time to recouperate in South Africa and returning to a political role in Northern Rhodesia. Marriage led him to a career in England and Scotland reforming police services wherever he went, until he was eventually appointed head of MI5 after World War 2. On retirement he ended up working on a diamond smuggling project which took him back to Africa.

This was a fascinatig and insightful read into a man, little known, who had a huge impact on policing as we know it today. And it seemed only appropriate that the two events which marked new stages in his career involved Africa – the first with the BSAP/NRP both controlled by Cecil Rhodes initially and concerning gold and diamonds. The second, being employed by Ernest Oppenheimer of De Beers – originally a Rhodes’ company.

A striking feature of Sillitoe’s work was his understanding of human nature and the realisation that a happy workforce would lead to a loyal workforce – something many of today’s managers could take on board. His time in Africa reinforced and honed this perception.

And for more of the African story not published in the biography, see this Exclusive.

It seems appropriate to consolidate here what is currently known of Percy’s World War 1 and Africa experience based on Tim Wright’s The History of the Northern Rhodesia Police.

22 May 1888 – born in Tulse Hill, London
25 April 1808 – Joins BSAP
Oct 1910 – Corporal at Vic Falls
8 Feb 1911 – Lieut Barotse Native Police (BNP)
13 Nov 1911 – At Fort Rosebery on route to Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission escort officer to end of 1912.
Suffered Blackwater fever
1914 – served with Town Police detachment – opened the first police station in Lusaka, was the only commissioned officer
His sleeping quarters were struck by lightening, but he was in the livingroom having tea with the Assistant Magistrate from Chilanga
Prevented game poaching by Boers
August 1914 In Lusaka during attack on Abercorn; left to meet the gun crew (May Jackson) at Broken Hill to go north. With 600 carriers undertook 520 mile march averaging 18 miles a day when the norm for carriers was 15 miles.
After reaching Abercorn, Percy was sent with 50 NRP to link with the Belgians and engage with the Germans at Kituta. He returned to Abercorn when it was discovered that the Germans had left.
19 Oct 1915 – at Fife with 50 NRP
29 Jan 1916 – Edward Northey arrives in Zomba (Sailed 4 Dec 1915, Cape Town 24 Dec, 7-11 at Livingstong with Cmdt Gen Edwards)
Orders Sillitoe with two columns totalling 138 men to go from Fife to take Luwiwa ad organise food collections once occupied.
2 Apr 1916 – Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP) Temporary Captain Officer Commanding E Company
Enteric Fever
30 Oct 1916 – in command of the area Alt Iringa to Salimu
15 August 1917 – Transfers to Tanganyika Service adn becomes OETA Bismarcksburg (Occupied Enemy Terrritory Administrator)
Nov 1918 – Political Officer, Dodoma
26 May 1920 – relinquishes command of NRP
1953 – Chief Investigator, De Beers
5 Apr 1962 – died Eastbourne

 

The Northern Rhodesia Police Association online archive

Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

I heard about this book from a friend who wanted my opinion on the idea of geography impacting on politics, particularly around Africa. I jumped at the opportunity as geo-politics was one of the theories underpinning my thesis which looked at why Britain and South Africa went to war in East Africa in the Great War. The war didn’t feature too much in terms of Africa, although there was mention of the boundaries having stayed relatively static from before the war.
This is an informative book and Tim has covered a huge amount of ground – geographically, politically and over swathes of time. It’s quite an accomplishment and reflective of the ‘hot’ areas. Those territories which are most volatile and which have the potential to impact on the greater part of the world get the most attention, so it’s not surprising that Africa is covered in fewer pages than most other areas. It’s not a case of discriminating against Africa, it’s what the geography dictates.
There were a couple of eye-brow raising moments, most notably around the Artic and the consequences of the melting ice packs. Linked to this surprisingly is Bangladesh and the fact that it could be drowned. My geography was clearly challenged and corrected on a number of occasions – and that was without looking at the maps. Having had the discussion on the book, my friend thought the maps quite accurate – I can’t comment as I don’t tend to ‘do’ maps, I can spend hours trying to work out relationships and other quirks to the benefit of no one or thing other than time-wasting.
Comparing what was written about South America and South Africa, I wonder what led to the difference in approach to the plateau? – was it the Boers’ complete desire for independence which drove them up the escarpment while there was no such impetus in Brazil? The discovery of diamonds and gold consolidating the movement inland.
It could be a worthwhile book to read for those considering changing country – I recall being taught at school that it wouldn’t be wise to move to Belgium or Poland as those two countries are always invaded in a regional conflict. Prisoners of Geography bears this out.
I wonder how military strategy colleagues would use the theories suggested by Tim in interpreting the direction of battle and skirmishes…

Review: The Head and The Load by William Kentridge

Wednesday 11 July 2018 was the premier of the William Kentridge exhibition The Head and The Load – the telling of the story of the carriers of World War 1. To be honest, I hadn’t been sure whether or not I wanted to see it, but prompted by David McDonald (CWGC) I went and am glad to have done so.

The venue was the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – a fitting space for the topic, and the idea but I’m not sure it worked as effectively for the audience which extended the length of the stage – this meant that if you sat at the end, you couldn’t see what was happening at the other – and there was a lot going on. I recall thinking at one stage, there’s too much energy on the stage to fully reflect the exhaustion the carriers would have experienced and which we were being told about.

Trying to capture four years of conflict and the role of the carriers from across the African continent on both the African continent and the Western Front in 70 minutes would be a challenge for most. In all, one can only expect the essence to be conveyed and this was aptly done. Although I did wonder to what extent someone with limited knowledge of Africa’s involvement in the war would have been able to make connections.

The value in such a production though is its reflection of current memory and understanding of aspects of the war. The three direct mentions of the two boats – Mimi and Toutou – being dragged across land from Cape Town to Lake Tanganyika, the Chilembwe uprising and allusion to the Western Front, are telling; although the title originates with the Gold Coast bringing in an awareness of West Africa. Significantly absent despite all the media was mention of the SS Mendi and the loss of over 600 lives when that ship went down. Many myths are by nature perpetuated, not least in the short history appearing in the programme booklet.

In contrast, however, to much of what has gone before, The Head and The Load shows how knowledge of the diversity of men and women involvd has filtered through – this was most refreshing. The inclusion of a French West African, Frenchman and German character (a screetching Eagle hovering above the men on the ground – how the actress protects her voice to enable her to make such noises is beyond me) as well as a ‘White Father’ missionary musician being a taster. The diversity of language too, mostly aided by translation on the wall again reflected some of what it must have been like at the time.

A very effective scene was the apparent never-ending carrying of the loads, the use of cut-outs and lighting to create large shadows on the wall behind of the diversity of load transported, as many of the wide-pan photos of carrier lines indicate.

The highlight for me, though, has to be the performances by the two carriers on the march, the one flagging, the other trying to keep his companion going. This followed from a foot-stomping session reminscent of mine dancing I grew up with. The energy and realism of the two was something to behold and rather moving as the flagging man eventually ‘died’ to be drag-carried across half the stage by his companion – his eyes glazed over unblinking for quite some time. This is sure to be an enduring memory of the show.

I’m not sure I understood all or even most of what Kentridge was trying to portray, but it was definitely worth seeing, if for no other reason than to gain insight into perceptions today of African involvement in World War 1.

See what BBC had to say and show.

 

 

Review: Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward

Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward (2016) is a book with a difference. It’s clearly self published, the lack of proofing and editing are obvious but more so, it’s a record of a journey of discovery into the story behind the SS Mendi which was sunk on 21 February 1917 off the Isle of Wight, the result of an accident.

Nick takes the reader through his discovery of the first Mendi graves he found and how this led to his search for the story behind the sinking and to find relatives of those who lost loved ones on the ship. The value of the book lies, at least for me, in Nick’s journey – the challenges one faces and how doors can open when all seems at a dead end – literally.

From a content point of view, Nick tells the story of the Mendi as he discovered it, using extensive quotes from reports and enquiries. This works if you have a basic knowledge of the Mendi saga but I’m not sure how easily someone new to Mendi would be able to construct the story.

I struggled with the Titanic link, until Nick explained how this came to be. And then later made links with Lord Buxton, Governor General of South Africa who had been at the Board of Trade when the Titanic went down. In fact, had it not been for that shipping incident, it is unlikely he would have been in South Africa as Governor General. Needless to say, it all helps get the story across to a wider audience.

I have a few issues with the book, not least the huge amounts printed in italics which can be hard on the eyes and the above-mentioned proofing errors. I’m also not sure about the emphasis Nick gives to Wauchope, over whom there are questions as a spiritual leader – to the extent that he was not employed in this capacity but rather as a clerk to the force.  The other interesting aspect I found is that Nick doesn’t deal with the myth of Wauchope’s poem which apparently helped keep the men calm. In fact, there is no mention of it at all in the book and the accounts Nick has included of the ship going down suggests the usual panic and chaos at such a time, recognising that the men had been well-drilled and that this played an valuable part in containing what could have been a made rush and free for all. I would be interested to know where and how this myth began. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t retract from the role Wauchope and his family have played in the struggle for equality in South Africa. If only Nick had been able to do the same with others who had lost their lives or even survived.

And, as I usually gripe, we hear so much about the Mendi and the sacrifice the men made to the exclusion of all the other SA Labourers who served and did their bit. But to be fair to Nick, he does touch on this a bit and it was not what he set out to do. What he does and, it’s sad to write, is show how fickle remembrance can be. The memorial garden opened by the Queen and Nelson Mandela is now, or was at the time of his writing, in disrepair. Government ministers promised things would be done and when it came to the crunch, fell silent. Those of us with African backgrounds  and who have spent time in Africa have all experienced this but it doesn’t make it right.  Sad to say, the Mendi continues as with Delville Wood to be a political pawn in South Africa’s World War 1 remembrance and this is something Nick brings home, even if he does so sub-consciously.

This is a worthwhile read on many levels and I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it on occasion – but I leave one plea. Let the men rest in peace where they lie – most who gave their lives in World War 1 rest in far flung places – Rather, let’s remember and honour them and what they, and their fellow SANLC, undertook to do to help make the world a better place.

The SA Heritage portal reviewed the book in 2017.

Review: African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi

Where to start? I found this book challenging to read, I didn’t like the style of writing and I had been annoyed before I began reading when a glance at the bibliography showed that once again we have a memoir of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck where German texts have been ignored other than those by Lettow-Vorbeck himself. In addition, all the myths of the First World War in Africa have been perpetuated as no primary or archival research was undertaken. How very frustrating, but thankfully all was not lost …

I always try and find something positive and for this book, it was a timely read as it reminded me of certain aspects of the campaign I had forgotten about and which were necessary for a paper or two I was writing. The basics are there.

Mixed feelings abound over Gaudi’s sidetracking – the opening scene for example is a long drawn out account of how Britain got the German codebook which eventually allowed it to pick up on the Konigsberg. And there are many others besides. The pros of this approach include new info and ideas, widening the scope of the war, showing how inter-related it was but on the con side, I just couldn’t help thinking the author was showing off.

It seems I am not the only one to have mixed feelings about this book. Mark Thatcher posted on Facebook (and I purposefully ignored it until I read the book) as follows:

Mark Thatcher So far so good with a couple of exceptions. I love the LOTR and all things Tolkien but mixing fantasy and History…hmmmm ….maybe on HBO. Also the author describes the Pour le Merite as a ‘metal’. It may be comprised of metal but the Pour le Merite is a ‘Medal’, as in medallion not metallion. Ugh.

For those not sure, LOTR = Lord of the Rings. I have no issue with including fiction in a history book – I do it myself, it’s more about how it’s done and which fiction is being referred to.

A librarian friend sent the Spectator review to me coincidentally just as I was starting the book – it must have been something in the ether – the copy I had was marked ‘Uncorrected proof, not for resale’ – it appears as though the Spectator reviewer had a similar copy. I sincerely hope that the errors, typos and other gremlins were all sorted for the release. Many of the major errors are listed in the Spectator review and I’m really pleased to see that one of the myths I had fallen for and have been trying to unravel, has been confirmed or at least sufficient evidence has been supplied for me to double check – that Max Aitken (newspaper mogul) and Arthur Aitken (Tanga fiasco) are not related:

And in any case Aitken was not Sir Max’s brother. The author has confused him with Arthur Noble Aitken, captain in the RAMC with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. It is not an easy mistake to make, unless you take it for granted from a secondary source. The Reverend William Aitken married Miss Jane Noble in 1867. General Arthur Edward Aitken was born in 1861 (Arthur Noble Aitken in 1883).

The Spectator refers to the Washington Post review – I can only agree with what was said in the Spectator, but I can understand where the Washington Post reviewer is coming from. If this is the first you’re reading about the East Africa campaign or von Lettow-Vorbeck, then it will be rivetting and an eye-opener, and the writing style – well, that may be a matter of taste. This is not the first American write-up I’ve seen on the campaigns in Africa which show a general ignorance of Africa and what was happening there.

Would I recommend this book? I think on balance I would, just, but with lots of cautions. The main one being to double check everything before you use it.