Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, and while here, living in a very Respectable Street, I’ve written a book, acquired a second child, lost a second parent, been promoted, got a new job, but not quite turned 50.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when we first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when we moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.



A selective résumé


I picked up this great story about a Princeton professor, Johannes Haushofer from Facebook (thanks Sue), who has posted his CV of Failures. It’s an idea prompted by Melanie Stefan. I have to admit that I have been thinking along these lines recently, not because I’m overcome by a great sense of failure, or an urge to ‘fail better’ even, but just because I have got to that stage of life where it occurs to me that the things I work on, research, and publish about don’t quite ‘scan’ directly from a linear set of projects funded, grants awarded, previous books written,. They only really make sense in relation also to the shadow world of failed bids, rejected papers, cancelled courses. I’ve reflected on this sort of thing before, provoked by Ivan Vladislavic’s lovely idea of a loss library. As for a CV of my own failures, well, that would be too long.


Songs from South Africa

DSCF4685I have just returned home from a couple of weeks in Cape Town, not a holiday, but a research-trip related to the Leverhulme project on The Urbanization of Responsibility. An exercise in ‘learning from another region’, that’s how I would characterise it. Anyway, one of the things that happens when I am in South Africa is that I find myself needing to buy something, anything, to listen to, while working and/or driving. As a result, over the years, I have collected an odd assortment of CDs, which have become indelibly connected to South Africa by virtue of being the only thing I had to listen to for weeks or even months on end. So here is my Top 10 “Random songs that I have collected on trips to South Africa”, in no particular order, and with nothing else in common at all:

1). H.W.C. – Liz Phair.

2). Free Nelson Mandela – Special AKA.

3). Rudy – Supertramp.

4). Get on the Good Foot – James Brown.

5). Big Jet Plane – Primal Scream.

6). Nkalakatha – Mandoza.

7). Mr. Soul – Buffulo Springfield.

8). Sindiza Ngecadilacs – Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks.

9). No More Lonely Nights – The Heads.

10). Ndlovu Iyangena – Tokolo.

On Stoddart

CCCCI was saddened to hear of the death of the geographer David Stoddart. The Guardian has an obituary, written by Peter Haggett, and The Independent has one by Tam Dalyell, with whom Stoddart campaigned to save Aldabra from being used as a military base; and there is an appreciation on the Berkeley Geography Department website.

Stoddart is the main influence on me becoming a Geographer, or at least on remaining in Geography long enough to become one. I am the last-but-one Geography undergraduate he admitted before leaving Cambridge, and no-one had applied to his College for a couple of years before me. Later on, it occurred to me that this might have been why I got in – I assume he wasn’t going to look too hard at the stray application that did turn up (I only applied to that College because they offered the best accommodation deal). As my Director of Studies, I was taught by Stoddart for a year, in his office in the Department of Geography (he had effectively ceased to actually visit the College some time ago). He wasn’t actually around when my first term started, he arrived a couple of weeks later, having been away in California, securing the Chair to which he moved at the end of 1987.

For a year, I had one-on-one supervisions with Stoddart, because there weren’t any other Geographers for whom he was responsible (This wasn’t, in my experience otherwise, a normal situation at all; supervisions normally had two or three people in them). In these meetings, I learnt various things. I learnt how to nurse a large glass beaker full of sherry through an hour-long meeting in which someone else was ding a lot of the talking without ending up totally trashed (not a skill that has been called on much since then). Above all, I learnt that Geography was an intellectual vocation. Stoddart’s outward demeanour was, as I recall, rather hearty, but his teaching was focussed on ideas, ideas, and ideas. His supervisions were interrupted by phone calls from Joseph Needham, and full of discussions, by Stoddart, of Darwin. His model of teaching was to send you off to read something for next time, and then when next time came round, you would find yourself talking about something else entirely. As a matter of principle, he didn’t set essays; so I didn’t write any in my first year as an undergraduate, until exams in the summer. This was a model of Geography as reading, like a personalised version of Geography as ‘Greats’ (I tended not to invest so heavily in Stoddart’s predilection for romping around salt marshes in the cold of November).

UntitledStoddart had me read Paul Wheatley’s Pivot of the Four Quarters in my first term, and Clarence Glacken’s Traces of the Rhodian Shore over the Christmas break (let’s not dwell on whether I understood anything going on in these kinds of books). Perhaps most importantly, he pointed me in the direction of David Harvey’s work. Getting me to read Harvey was his strategy to keep me from switching from Geography at the end of my first year. I went to University with the intention of studying Economics, and only started with Geography because if you already had an A-Level in Economics, you did not need to do the first-year Economics course. I thought doing Geography would be a good way of learning a few more facts about desertification and drought before focussing on proper, complex ideas about how the world really worked (which is what doing Economics at school had seemed to have been about). When I first met him, at a meet-and-greet event in the Spring before going to University, I had told Stoddart that I liked Keynes (he had asked me who my intellectual hero was, and I didn’t think it wise to say ‘Charles M. Schulz’), and that I had an interest in knowing more about Marxism (probably because of reading too much of the NME). So when I started, when he did arrive back, he told me to read Harvey, specifically, ‘Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science‘. This essay was almost designed to convert callow just-out-of-school Geographers into critical social scientists. It worked on me. When I later ordered Harvey’s Limits to Capital for the College library, the request was forwarded to the Economics fellow for approval, who declined it on the grounds that this book was already held at the University’s Economics library. Stoddart was furious at this, and insisted on it being ordered as core Geography reading.

By the end of my first year, actually much earlier, I had settled on staying with Geography (helped by the realisation that Economics was really just abstracted applied algebra). This was because I had discovered a whole world of social theory, a world full of Marxism and feminism and Giddens, a world in which it turned out that everyone was talking about politics and power. And I had discovered this world in no small part because Stoddart encouraged me in that direction, and also because he demonstrated to me through his own work and teaching style that Geography was the place to stay if you were really interested in pursuing ideas.

Favourite Thinkers VII: Iris Marion Young

Picture 092Noticing, rather belatedly I now realise, that the last book by Iris Marion Young had been published got me reflecting on the different encounters I have had with her work over the years, making me feel old, and slow, but also making me realise that sometimes thinkers act as helpful companions. I have always found, on reading Young, that she had got somewhere I wanted to be well before I arrived there, but I have also found this kind of affirming – she is one of the thinkers who always reassured me that I wasn’t completely on the wrong track. So I have been reconstructing ‘my life with Iris’, which does, oddly, include one occasion when I met her in person.

I think my first encounter was in late 1989 – I was in my first term as a graduate student, and this was the moment of postmodernism in geography: Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies had been published earlier that year, shortly before I took my Finals as an undergraduate; the week I started as a graduate student, David Harvey’s much awaited (by me anyway) The Condition of Postmodernity was published (this is the last book I read before getting glasses; actually, I started it without glasses, but was wearing glasses by the time I finished). Shortly after this, I was leant an advance copy of the collection Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson (which might just be one of the most influential books, in a more or less unacknowledged way, in geography of the last 25 years or so). This was a revelation – it opened a door into a world where though ‘postmodernism’ was still used as a term, people were talking about more serious things in more serious ways – deconstruction, phenomenology, post-structuralism. I’m not sure that I ever took discussions of ‘postmodernism’ in geography terribly seriously again, all a bit too Rorty-lite as they were, after reading this book, which included essays by Young, Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway. I remember around that time reading Young’s ‘Throwing like a girl’ in a reading group that some of us had set up , and remember too that  the argument in it resonated because, well, I’m a boy who never could throw quite well enough – a slightly different subject-position, as we all learnt to say about that time, from the one primarily intended by Young’s analysis of gendered embodiment.

What particularly sticks in my mind as a turning-point, intellectually, for me is coming across a copy of Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference in a bookshop in 1990. In October to be precise – more or less systematically, I put the date in the front of books when I get them. Around this time, I was trying to start ethnographic research which somehow was meant to keep together various things I was interested in – space, gender, money, urbanism, culture, language, all sorts really. I gave this up, for various reasons, but partly it was because Young’s book impressed upon me the sense that there were a set of theoretical traditions it might be fun to engage with in greater depth than discussions about ‘postmodernism’ seemed to allow. So, alongside Robert Young’s White Mythologies, Justice and the Politics and Difference set me off in the direction of doing a reading-based dissertation all about deconstruction, discourse theory, Foucault, Ricoeur, postcolonialism Said, Spivak. (The two Youngs, Iris and Robert, also strike me now as exemplary figures whose work gets subjected to a certain style of reading in geography – finding someone talking about ‘spatial’ or ‘geographical’ things, but then finding them not quite up to scratch, not materialist enough perhaps, lacking an adequately sophisticated grasp of the wobbliness of spatiality, that sort of thing. Sometimes, most of the time perhaps, there are more interesting things to talk about than space, spatiality, and the like).

Picture 041Over time, I came to work out just how smart Young’s use of Derrida, Levinas, Irigary to re-read notions of public space in more affective registers was – I ended up writing about this in my book, Culture and Democracy (pages 60 to 65 if you’re really interested), but really didn’t have much to say on these issues that Young had not already got to in developing the notion of communicative democracy, in Inclusion and Democracy for example.  I’m not sure whether one should admit it, but sometimes, in a field like mine, ‘critical exegesis’ is shaped primarily by the commitments of the fan. 

Young’s response to David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is also a key reference point for another thought I now take almost for granted. Reading this in Antipode in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1998, what I took away was the insistence on thinking of universal notions of justice or rights as, well, discursive, that is, in terms of claims. That is, I think, a much more political understanding of universality than one finds in most other places, but also a more redeemably ‘universal’ notion of universality because of its concern with the to-ing and fro-ing of claim-making.  More generally, it was, for me at least, a precursor to thinking about claims as an important register for thinking about practices of representation or responsibility, or democracy more generally, an idea I have tried to articulate myself, but which other people like my former colleague Mike Saward or John Parkinson have smarter versions of than me.

When I started work at Bristol, in the early 2000s, I tried to teach Young alongside more obvious geographical literature on justice, by Harvey, David Smith and so on – not least, I think by then I was working out that her work did rather different things with a Rawlsian line of thought than you got in geography, where Rawls was either summarily dismissed as ‘liberal’ (an accusation that I have come to think reflects more negatively on the person making it than on the person so accused), or taken as providing a universal model to be applied to empirical situations.

In 2003, during the long Easter weekend in Durban, when most of the country seems to close down completely, I actually met Iris Young, visiting as a guest of Raphael Kadt, then editor of the journal Theoria – a few of us, Di Scott, Jenny Robinson, Murray Low, spent an afternoon in the garden of Gill Hart’s house in Musgrave, drinking wine and eating nibbles. I admit to having been more than a little bit star-struck.

IMG_4846Then in the late summer of 2003, Marion Werner, who had been a Masters student at Bristol that year, left a copy of Dissent in my pigeon-hole, pointing me in the direction of an essay by Young on a social connection model of responsibility in relation to labour solidarity campaigns. This was another ‘Wow’ moment, and I have spent the last decade shamefully ripping-off Young’s model of political responsibility in various research and writing projects. When I started at the OU, later that same year, I did my best to get Young’s account of responsibility adopted as the framework for the course on globalisation that we were making then. Later, in 2004 or 2005 we approached her to do an audio interview for the OU globalisation course, but she was unable to do so, because she was by then already dealing with her illness, from which she died in 2006. Her influence does, though, resonate across that course and various pieces of work by myself and others who engaged with it at that time. Her influence is reflected in the idea that structures that course – globalisation is a process that is realised through demands and responses that different actors make on each other. The responsibility theme also provided an important reference point for the project on ethical consumption that I worked on at this time too – Young’s ideas on the distribution of responsibility across extended fields of action provide the intellectual ballast at the front and end of the book from this project.

Most recently, in writing about justice and responsibility and ethics in geography, I have tried to be more explicit than before about what it is that Young’s work brings to the debates that geographers engage with, or at least draw from. Her concept of political responsibility comes into better focus if you triangulate it, for example, with Cohen’s work on justice and Pogge’s working up of the idea of a global basic structure. I also noticed around the time of writing these pieces that Young, like one or two other thinkers I was reading, made more or less explicit reference to Pettit’s account of republican freedom as non-domination in working up her account of responsibility – one day, if I have time, I’d like to delve deeper into that relationship in the case of Young’s ideas and others. I think, in particular, what is of most value is the theme of shared responsibility that Young develops across all the work on the idea of justice and responsibility over the last decade or so of her life: this is a lot smarter than the standard move of simply asserting that one needs to think in terms of collective responsibility rather than individual responsibility (which kind of closes down problems of effective agency in its knock-down simplicity). By bringing into view differential capacities to act responsibly, it is a resolutely political but not moralising notion of responsibility. And if you can’t find something of ‘geographical’ value in this work, something which does not need simply to be corrected, then you just aren’t trying.

Media archaeology II

A while back now, I wrote a few posts about the family ‘stuff’ I was finding myself having to go through. Some of this stuff opens windows on quite personal and intimate histories, some of it more public ones. One of my favourite excavations has been the discovery of some more or less random pages from TV and radio guides from 1966. In a cupboard in my mother’s house was a bunch of framed pictures, including one of my two older sisters when they were toddlers. The frame of this picture was broken, and when I took it apart, behind the photograph, the paper used to pack the photo into the frame was old editions of the Radio Times and TV World (a predecessor of TV Times I guess). They are from Spring 1966, shortly after my parents and sisters returned to the UK after their African adventures – the TV World is actually for the old ATV region, and the Radio Times is the Midlands and East Anglia edition. 

These yellowing pages reveal a lost world of British public culture, when The Fugitive was the exciting new US import on ITV, Sheila Hancock starred in a show as “one of life’s most entertaining victims”, Captain Pugwash was a cartoon strip in The Radio Times, and you could order an Asbestos Garage from £43. 7s. from the back of the same publication.  Easter Monday’s schedule on ITV that year was all sport: international swimming, from Llanelly; motor racing, from Goodwood, obviously; racing from Newcastle; and show jumping from Hickstead (with commentary by Raymond Brooks-Ward, who I had never associated with ITV, in so far as I think about his career much at all). The BBC was about to broadcast the first of eight, yes eight, nightly programmes reconstructing the ‘Irish Rebellion’ of 1916.

The Letters pages of both publications are testaments to the critical capacities of engaged, active audiences – a brilliant debate about whether or not the plotlines of Softly, Softly were too vague and lacking in satisfactory clarity by the end of each episode, or for that very reason best compared to Kafka’s novels. Or a complaint about the contrast between the national news on BBC radio, presented apparently in “a serious, sensible, and factual manner”, and regional news stories which “are treated in a simpering, pseudo-cosy style”. Pseudo-cosy, what a great concept.

The Radio Times for the 16th-22nd April also contained a half page advert for BBC books and records to accompany its Further Education programmes (Adventurous Cooking, Laws of Disorder) – a peak into the pre-history of The Open University, when the BBC was already pioneering the use of multi-media platforms for adult education. 

Over at TV World in the same week, the letters were all about how best to make custard pies that flop – part of a discussion with the TV World cookery expert. This is from an age before Tiswas.

Subjects of emergency

More from the family archives: my mother and father were married in August 1957, and he was then posted to Cyprus. My mother arrived to join him at the beginning of 1958. She arrived slap bang in the middle of ‘the Emergency’. By 1958, Britain’s ‘small war’ in Cyprus was reaching its end game. The emergency was a response to the paramilitary campaign of the EOKA (the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters), who sustained a campaign of bombings, shootings, assassinations and demonstrations for 4 years from 1955 . EOKA’s campaign was halted in 1959, when the British negotiated a settlement for independence with Archbishop Makarios, rather than ‘Enosis’ or unification with Greece which had been the explicit aim of the campaign. Cyprus was another of those places where the British developed counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism strategies in the 1950s.

The cinefilm from this period consists of long stretches of film taken while driving around the island; and from the air, of flying around it too. My mother always referred to this period by repeating the same anecdote – one about being escorted around town by soldiers carrying Sten Guns. It clearly left an impression.

Amongst many other things, my mother pasted into her scrapbook orders from British military officials to servicemen on how to conduct themselves (see: Viking Patrols), but also EOKA leaflets addressed to both British soldiers and to local Turkish and Greek Cypriots (see: EOKA to British Soldiers and Rumours). Leafleting was in fact a key aspect of the EOKA’s campaign, it turns out – a kind of legitimizing and/or intimidatory and/or mobilising public supplement to the use of violence. These come from June 1958, during an intensification of inter-communal violence and British clampdown.

There are also a couple of gems from October 1958, issued in the days immediately following the shooting dead of the wife of a British serviceman on the island. They provide specific instructions to households for going shopping to the NAAFI (see: Lady customers) and even more precise instructions for wives (see: Restrictions on wives) as to when and where and whom to visit.

This handful of pieces of paper are like a personal archive of my mother’s experience of colonial and anti-colonial violence, order and terror. They give a little insight into the ordinary ways in which the subjects of the emergency were constructed by various sides: as ‘youths’ and ‘mobs’; as ‘civilised persons’ or ‘agressors’; as ‘helpless Greeks’ and ‘soldiers’ obeying orders, or just doing a ‘bobby’s job’; as ‘husbands’ and ‘wives’ and ‘children’.

Apart from anything else, all this makes it a little more obvious why a move to Rhodesia may have appeared a nice idea.

Dramas of contradiction

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has an essay in Moving the Centre entitled ‘Biggles, Mau Mau and I’, which I read a long while ago when writing a doctoral thesis on postcolonial theory.  It’s about the incongruity between his love of Biggles adventure stories, as a young student in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, at the same time as one of his brothers was fighting with the Mau Mau in the forests being targeted by the RAF as part of the British counter-insurgency strategy against the Mau Mau rebellion:

“What actually broke the back of Mau Mau in the mountains was the intensive bombing by the Royal Air Force. Mau Mau had no reply to the terror from the sky. My brother, who survived the war, still talks with awe of the bombings”.

As Ngugi puts it: “So, in reading Biggles in the years 1955 and 1956, I was involved in a drama of contradictions”. To be more precise, it’s actually a drama of identification which he describes, pulled between two hero figures – his brother, and Biggles.

This essay by Ngugi has always stuck in my mind because, in 25 years in the air force, the only sustained ‘hot’ war my father engaged in was as part of this bombing campaign Ngugi refers to – the RAF deployed Lincoln bombers to Kenya from 1953, and my father was navigator in one of these squadrons. One of only two medals he had from his years of service is from this Kenya operation – I only recall once hearing a passing remark from him disdaining the idea that the bombing was effective, something to the effect of ‘You flew along ’til you were over the forest, dropped the bombs, and then fly home’. (Actually, this pretty much captures the logic of air power in the Mau Mau campaign – the British patterned-bombed areas designated as ‘known’ terrorist locations, defined as ‘prohibited areas’ – anyone in them was therefore, by definition, assumed to be Mau Mau. On these grounds, the bombing campaign can be considered a successful model for limiting civilian casualties).

My father’s military career, and the first twenty years of my parents’ marriage, coincides with the period of Britain’s imperial downsizing, from the early 1950s to mid-7os. A period of ‘small wars’, or ‘peripheral conflicts’, although not so small perhaps from a Kenyan perspective, or not so marginal to understanding the history of the present in, say, Cyprus.

It turns out that the role of the RAF during the Kenyan ’emergency’ is a topic of renewed interest in fields of military-academic research, as part of a wider interest in learning lessons from the British use of air power as part of ‘COIN’ in the 1950s and the 1960s, from Malaya onwards (see here, here, and here for example). Needless to say, in this intellectual universe, the interpretation of the role of the RAF is somewhat different from Ngugi’s; although I should also say that this ‘theatre’ of post-war aerial warfare does not seem to play much part in critical genealogies of aerial bombing. (And, by the by, on the basis of my speed reading about this sort of thing in last few weeks, I do hope somebody out there is writing the definitive genealogy of the vertical geopolitics of the helicopter).

Amongst the things I have been sorting out from my parents home in the past few weeks is a little box kept by my father, who I don’t remember as a sentimental man, containing those two medals, a medal for achievement for something or other from Northampton Grammar School, and a number of wings, insignia and badges he had removed from old uniforms (and a leather cord wristband which I cannot imagine him ever having worn, but who knows, he was young). Amongst these is one from Bomber Command, which must date from the early 195os – the motto reads ‘Strike with Accuracy’, which we all now know is something more of a statement of hope than of fact. There is also an enamel badge from his last squadron, in the 1970s, flying long-distance transport aircraft – ‘United in Effort’ it reads, less rousingly, but rather more honestly. The arc of his military career is captured in these two badges.

I can’t say I identify very strongly with this aspect of my father’s life (it’s interesting, depending on one’s tastes, but that’s not the same thing). It might be more a matter of actively dis-identifying with some elements of its legacy. But the fact that these mementoes of RAF-life are kicking around in the same box as the school medal does strike a chord with me – it’s a reminder that for him, the RAF was a route of upward social mobility, for a working-class boy who had left school at 15 to work as a clerk on the railways, who then found himself ‘Officer material’ on merit. It was also a route to overseas adventures. Somewhere in the box is a sociological lesson about the material grounds for identification with ‘the nation’, for example, as an aspect of dull and ordinary career paths, or as the background in which friendships were made. But also, perhaps, a lesson about the thinness of that identification, in so far as it might have been accompanied by all the usual disappointments, resentments, regrets, and failures which accompany people’s jobs and careers.

Ngugi’s account of his boyish identity being formed within a drama of contradictions is certainly more dramatic than mine. The attraction of Biggles, he suggests, lay in  literary form – “in the story and the elements of what happens next”: “They were the kinds of books that told a young man: once you start reading me, you will not put me down. It was the strong action that made one forget, or swallow, all the racist epithets of the narratives”. Ngugi’s point is that this is an element of ‘literarature’ which one is meant to grow out of, an important first immersion, but one which only invited “involvement in the actions of the hero and his band of faithfuls”, not “meditation”. My dad wasn’t Biggles, and I didn’t even really grow up in a military family, but rather one in which air force life was a fading memory.   There isn’t much of a story here, actually, is there? I did grow up in a house full of books, although not a bookish household, and anyway, they weren’t story books, not exactly – they were history books by Paul Wellman about the old West, or Guy Gibson’s autobiography. Books which, if I were to read them now, I might suppose have an element of the tragic in them lying beneath all the adventure. And you don’t get that in Biggles.

Lunch with Harold Wilson

In the early 1990s, when I was a graduate student, my parents would sometimes visit and we’d go to lunch, mostly on Sundays. On more than one occasion, we found ourselves in the same restaurant as a much larger family party: kids, parents, and grandparents, one of whom, it turned out, was Harold Wilson.

I have remembered these passing encounters because I have been going through more family stuff, most of which is material from the time my parents spent overseas in the early part of their marriage, from 1958 to 1965. I have been piecing together the precise timeline of their movements, and those of my sisters born back then – I’ve always known they lived in Rhodesia, after Cyprus, were out of Rhodesia before UDI, and in Zambia for a bit, then came back to the UK, but the precise timings have all been a bit vague. Now, with an archive of my mother’s scrapbooks from this period, 100s of photos, cinefilms, their passports, a couple of their books (Ian Smith’s autobiography; the 1000 page history of the Rhodesian Air Force, 1920 – 1980….), plus a bit of googling, it’s becoming a little clearer. 

My father went to Rhodesia in 1959 (closely followed by my mother), when the British delivered the first of 15 Canberra bombers to the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (RRAF), then the air force of the Central African Federation. He had transferred his RAF commission to the RRAF, signing up for a ten year stint (the precise motivations behind this decision, how the two of them negotiated this barely a year or so into their marriage, is well and truly lost to the mists of time). But the Central African Federation (CAF) was already in crisis at this point. Pressures for independence for Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were generating the counter-movement that would lead eventually to the Rhodesia Front regime in Southern Rhodesia declaring independence unilaterally to forestall any further moves to black majority rule, or indeed anything even approaching it. Founded in 1953, considered by its supporters as a noble experiment, the CAF was described by Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia Shall be Free simply as ‘ugly’ – suspected from its foundation by African nationalists as an effort to effectively gerrymander the region to guarantee continued authority for Southern Rhodesia’s white minority.

When the CAF was formally dissolved in 1963, serving members in the RRAF were given various options, laid out in a pamphlet kept in one of my mum’s scrapbooks: ‘Dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland: Royal Rhodesian Air Force – Options Available to Officers and European Members’. Some stayed with the RRAF in Southern Rhodesia; others, including my old man, transferred back into the RAF, but in his case on condition of serving a two-year secondment with the soon to be Zambian Air Force, initially the Northern Rhodesian Air Wing (it being clearly underlined in the paperwork, otherwise focussing on pension issues, that this meant transferring to a military service where “all units must be non-racial in character”). So, my parents lived in Zambia for two years, either side of independence, and came home with both sisters at the end of 1965 (the tickets and boarding passes for the trip home are amongst the souvenirs my mother kept – flying with Central African Airways, it involved flying from Livingstone to Lusaka, onto Ndola, then to Nairobi, and then finally to London. She also kept a set of the in-flight cutlery, of which only a small fork remains). 

I have not really considered before just how intense a period of geopolitical tension they lived through – it didn’t seem to be an aspect of their own recollections of this period. When talked about, their time in Rhodesia and in Livingstone was mentioned in terms of seemingly endless tennis, and regular brais, two Alsatians. But air power was pretty central to the crisis around the CAF, Rhodesia, and UDI throughout the 1950s and 1960s – white Rhodesian identity centred on notions of being ‘the most loyal of the loyal’ in their service to the Crown, primarily enacted and re-enacted through the close links between the RAF and Rhodesia, back to the second world war at least, and the Rhodesian air force was thoroughly integrated into post-war British imperial and then Commonwealth defence strategy – that’s why they were flogged the Canberras in the first place. And in turn, this meant that ‘the winds of change’ set in motion by changing British colonial policy in the early 1960s ran straight into the very significant obstacle of white-Rhodesian air power. In the deal done to dissolve the Federation, in 1963, under a Tory British government, the Southern Rhodesians got all the good planes – the ones which could do all the damage – as the same pamphlet explains: they got Hunters, Vampires, Canberras, and helicopters, amongst other things.  The Zambians had to settle for a handful of ageing transport planes: 4 Dakotas and 2 Pembrokes. Oh, and my dad, and some of his mates. This arrangement (not the bit about my dad, the bit about the planes) caused consternation amongst black African nations at the time – it’s at this moment that Zambia effectively becomes a ‘frontline’ state.

Smith, in The Great Betrayal, describes this allocation in the following way: “It had been accepted before the conference [in July 1963 where it was agreed to dissolve the CAF] that the armed forces would come to Southern Rhodesia en bloc. This was vital to us because both army and air force were highly efficient, and constituted the most proficient fighting force in sub-Saharan Africa, other than South Africa’s. The British had made it clear that they did not wich any of this to fall into the hands of the two Northern territories”.

On the other hand, this division is seen rather differently from a Zambian perspective:

“Zambia’s treatment at independence in the case of the two Rhodesias may probably go down as one of the greatest injustices ever to occur in the sharing of goods and services between states previously in a federal system of government. This was particularly evident in the sharing of the military arsenal between the two Rhodesias. Northern Rhodesia was the richest territory in the federation, despite the federation’s capital being in Southern Rhodesia. One would therefore have expected the sharing to have been in favour of the highest contributor to the purchase of that equipment—or, at the least, an equitable distribution. This was not to be. Southern Rhodesia received the lion’s share, leaving the new state of Zambia with some old and out-of-service aircraft four DC-3 Dakotas and two Pembrokes) and little of anything else. In addition, the new state of Zambia did not have its own indigenous officer corps—all officers were from the British Army and the British Royal Air Force, or from the ‘white’ settler communities from both Southern and Northern Rhodesias (now Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively) who had decided to cast their lot with Salisbury—another distinction for Southern Rhodesia.”

This is all well enough known, and part of the standard story about the lead-up to UDI is the idea that in 1964 and 1965, under Wilson’s newly elected Labour government, the British did not go down the route of military intervention because of the strength of the Rhodesian military, particularly it’s air force, and also because of the close personal and professional ties between the British and Rhodesian military meant that the government could not depend on the loyalty of the RAF or Army. It’s a line, for example, repeated by Denis Healy in his autobiography.  

So now, you see, I’m suddenly struck by the odd idea that Harold Wilson once sat around strategizing about how to deal with Ian Smith by making judgements about the loyalty of men like my dad – by this time, 1964-5, serving again in the RAF, on secondment to the Zambian Air Force, having spent 4 years in the RRAF.

Now, it turns out that this line about the problem of getting the British military to engage in hostilities with their white Rhodesian ‘kith and kin’ might not have been quite so central to Wilson’s decision-making and that of his government as is often made out – it might have been a convenient excuse: “the British government rejected the option of using force because it was engaged in a desperate struggle to limit its military liabilities for economic reasons […] but publicly it was prudent to argue that the use of force was neither militarily feasible, nor desirable because of popular sympathy for Rhodesian ‘kith and kin'” (Watts, C. 2005: Killing kith and kin: the viability of British military intervention in Rhodesia, 1964-5. Twentieth-Century British History 16, 382-415).

(By the way, another thing I have not done before is actually read Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence – it’s reproduced in Smith’s book. It’s a most remarkable political document – it’s like a long whinge from a recalcitrant child, a geopolitical version of taking one’s ball home because the bigger kids wouldn’t let you have your way).

I now realise how, whatever their motivations, my parents had gone to Rhodesia for more than the few years they ended up staying, 5 or 6, but had intended at least to be there for 10 – their coming home, having enjoyed being part of the final colonial generation, and an event that shaped much of the subsequent emotional ‘shape’ of my family’s life as I have known it, was both premature and forced on them. Bill Schwarz has written about how the memory of empire was critical to the ways in which British domestic politics unfolded in 1960s through to the 1980s, focussing on the central role of Enoch Powell’s  ‘proconsular social vision’ in articulating a racialised vision of order and disorder that had been most clearly developed ‘overseas’, and not least in places like Rhodesia before and after the dissolution of the CAF. Well my parents were hardly ‘proconsular’, but they certainly bought back home not just a memory of an orderly world but one which was experienced as upward social mobility, comfort and the good life of a sort that returning to married quarters in provincial England might not have immediately substituted for. My mother stopped scrapbooking when they got back to England – the very last thing pasted in is the paperwork allocating them their married quarter at RAF Honington, in December 1965.

There is a distinctly Rhodesian variant of what J.M. Coetzee has called ‘white writing’, in books by writers such as Alexandra Fuller and Peter Godwin, recounting the pleasures and losses of growing up in Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s. My mother read these books, but this was not quite the period of her own experience. I should admit too that I gave her Smith’s autobiography, with some reservations of principle, and I think she finally worked out that he really was ‘a nasty piece of work’.

None of this ever came up when we sat across the room from Wilson, just a few years before his death, in a restaurant in Oxford.