In the summer of 2018, I visited Edinburgh for the first time. I really liked the city, it has a vibrancy and energy that is something quite special. I was there for the start of the Edinburgh festivals, a month-long celebration of theatre, music, and comedy that is famous around the world. One of the other highlights of my trip was visiting the Scottish Parliament, which is much more open and accessible than the Palace of Westminster. It was great to be able to visit the building where mainstream politics in Scotland plays out. The Parliament is not the only space for politics to play out in the city, however. The streets are an active site of informal, everyday politics, protest, and social movements. One form this takes is protest stickers, fragments of politics that can tell you an awful lot about a city, if you look closely enough.
The international environmental campaign group Greenpeace has been associated with ships since their very first protest in 1971 when they attempted to interrupt US nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in Alaska. Greenpeace now has 3 ships which it uses to conduct scientific research, raise awareness, and engage in direct action to protect the environment. On the weekend of 13th-14th of April 2019 one of these ships, the MV Esperanza, was docked in London. Greenpeace supporters were given the opportunity to tour the ship. One of those who accepted the invite was Patricia Awcock (a.k.a my Mum!), who has been supporting Greenpeace for 4 decades. Here, she reflects on the experience and what it meant to her.
I have been a proud member of Greenpeace for 40 years. Even then, I understood the dangers facing our planet and I also knew that I am not a natural protester or activist! That is why I have been happy to contribute to Greenpeace; I saw the value of their activism and just knew that someone had to do what Greenpeace was prepared to do. I have followed the campaigns through the years, but always from a distance. I was extremely pleased and excited, therefore, to be given the opportunity to visit MV Esperanza when she was docked in London at the weekend.
I was surprisingly moved when I caught my first glimpse of MV Esperanza. She seemed to be completely dwarfed by the high-rise buildings that represent the centre of capitalism, but the Greenpeace colours, rainbow, and painted dove shone so brightly in the sunshine that she seemed to act as a metaphor of optimism and resilience. Esperanza means ‘hope’ in Spanish, and she really did send out a message of hope; the West India Millwall Docks, so close to Canary Wharf, was the perfect setting!
The visit helped me to understand, however, that the Greenpeace ships are not just a symbol of an organisation that is willing to take on large corporations in such a dramatic manner. They are gritty, smelly, basic working ships that undertake vital work, in extremely dangerous conditions. They are not only engaged in direct action campaigns, but are also involved in scientific exploration, helping to provide vital evidence that is needed in the fight to protect the oceans. This mixture of direct action and scientific exploration is what, I believe, makes Greenpeace such an important organisation.
I have always had great respect for the volunteers who put their lives on hold, and sometimes in danger, to join campaigns for many months, but seeing the reality of their living conditions and learning about the daily responsibilities and duties made me even more appreciative of what they are prepared to do.
Over the last 40 years, I have frequently become despondent about the increasing negative impact humans are having on the planet. I have often wondered whether I am wasting my money by donating Greenpeace. What are they actually achieving? Visiting MV Esperanza made me realise, however, just how important the work of Greenpeace is, and that the symbolism of the organisation is just as important as their activism and scientific exploration.
Maybe one day I will actually take part in a protest, but in the meantime I am just so grateful that Greenpeace is carrying out such vital and dangerous work in my name.
David Olusoga. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.
In the introduction to Black and British, David Olusoga tells a disturbing story from his childhood, where his family were driven out of their home by racist attacks in 1984. After they left, a swastika was painted on the front door, along with the words “NF [National Front] won here.” My response was: “I know racism is still a problem in the UK, but at least it isn’t that bad any more.” A few days later, the story broke about Vaughan Dowd painting racist graffiti on the front door of 10-year-old David Yamba and his father in Salford, Greater Manchester. I was shocked, and perhaps a bit embarrassed by my naivety in believing that this kind of thing doesn’t happen any more. Black and British is an excellent introduction to thousands of years of intertwined history between black people and the British isles, that helps put the racist ideology behind the persecution of the Yamba family into context.
In Black and British, David Olusoga eloquently explores the place of black people in British history, stretching back to the Roman occupation and beyond. He brings the story up to the 1980s, arguing that his personal memories of the period since then limit his ability to be impartial. In between, he covers a huge swathe of historical material, ranging from Britain’s role in both the growth and eventual decline of the Atlantic slave trade, through the influence of black music on British culture, to the impacts of the presence of African-American GIs in the UK during the Second World War.
What I find most innovative about Black and British is Olusoga’s definition of ‘British’. He doesn’t just consider people who live in the British isles, or who hold British citizenship, but everyone who’s lives were shaped by Britain or her people. For example, the book includes a fascinating exploration of the history of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which was founded as a colony for poor black people ‘repatriated’ from London in the late 1700s. The city thrived as the base for the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, who were responsible for enforcing the ban on the slave trade. Slaves from throughout Western Africa were freed by the Royal Navy’s ships, and made their homes in the city, creating a vibrant and diverse population. Sierra Leone is 5000 km from the Britain, but Olusoga’s writing makes the connections between them impossible to deny.
I also admire the way that Black and British is not just a history of racism in Britain, although it does tell that story very well. It is predominantly about the lives of black people with the British sphere of influence, their triumphs and their tragedies, and their attempts to create a space for themselves within British society. It is easy to focus on racism when we think about black people in the UK, but there is so much more to the story than that. People should be defined by who they are and what they do, not the prejudice they face, and Black and British does that.
There has been (and perhaps, still is), a tendency to overlook the role of black people in British history, an erasure that helps to undermine the ability of black people to assert their right to be part of a society that they have contributed to for hundreds of years. Black and British is just one part of an attempt to rewrite British history in a way that more accurately reflects the contribution of black people, and it does a wonderful job. It has profoundly altered my understanding of the history of Britain, and I think that everyone who lives in Britain or considers themselves British should read it.
Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Peggy Duff, who worked as a peace campaigner for three decades.
Born to a stereotypical middle class family in suburban Middlesex on 8th April 1910 Margaret Doreen Eames (known as Peggy Duff after her marriage) probably didn’t anticipate that she would grow up to become one of the most prominent peace campaigners of the twentieth century and a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is still going strong more than 60 years later.
Peggy attended Hastings Secondary School for Girls. The headmistress hinted at her future path by describing her as “very public spirited.” She read English at Bedford College, and worked as a journalist after her graduation in 1932. In 1933, she married Bill Duff, a fellow journalist. The couple had 2 daughters and a son. Peggy started to get involved in peace campaigns in the late 1930s.
Tragically, Bill was killed in November 1944 whilst covering a American air raid on the Burma Railway. In order to support her family, Peggy worked full-time during the Second World War for Common Wealth, a socialist party to the left of Labour. The party performed very poorly in the 1945 General Election, and Peggy went to work for Save Europe Now, an organisation which sent food and clothing to occupied Germany and Austria. They also campaigned for the repatriation of German and Italian prisoners of war. This must have been a very difficult job at a time when they would have been very little sympathy for the soldiers and civilians of countries that lost the war. Peggy worked for Save Europe Now until 1948.
Between 1929 and 1955, Peggy was the business manager of Tribune, a socialist magazine that would later describe itself as the “official weekly” of the CND. Between 1955 and 1957, she was the Secretary of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (not the catchiest name ever). Capital punishment was not abolished for murder in the UK until 1965. In 1965, Peggy was elected as a Labour member of St. Pancras Borough Council. She fought hard for the rights of council tenants, who were being squeezed by the post-war housing shortage and rising rents (some things in London never change!). Her methods of achieving this were not always popular, however; she supported controversial redevelopments and slum clearances.
At the Labour Party Conference in 1957, Aneurin Bevan (the driving force behind the National Health Service, but at this point he was Shadow Foreign Secretary) shocked his supporters by denouncing calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world was a controversial issue, but Bevan dismissed calls for Britain to disarm with the argument that it would weaken Britain’s negotiating position on the international stage. That November, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, with Peggy as General Secretary. One of the CND’s best-known tactics is the Aldermarston Marches, when activists marched between London and Aldermarston in Berkshire, where nuclear bombs were being produced. Peggy organised the second Aldermarston march in 1959, and all of the others that followed until 1963. She was known amongst fellow activists for her energy and resilience.
Peggy resigned from the Labour party in May 1963 over Harold Wilson’s support of the Vietnam War and his refusal to condemn the dictatorship in Greece. Peggy’s commitment to peace outweighed her political allegiances. In 1965, Peggy stepped down from her role in the CND and began working for the International Federation for Disarmament and Peace, an alliance of peace groups from around the world, including the CND, who refused to take sides in the emerging Cold War. She published her memoirs, called Left, Left, Left, in 1971.
Peggy died on the 16th April 1981, aged 71. She had dedicated most of her adult life to campaigning for the peace, as well as bringing up 3 children on her own. The CND, which she helped to found, is still going strong and arguably one of the best-known campaign groups in British history. That is a legacy to be proud of.
Mathieson, David. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016.
Oldfield, Sybil. “Duff [née Eames], Margaret Doreen [Peggy].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 22 February 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70428 [requires a subscription to access]