Category Archives: Arts

William Matthews Lecture 2020: ‘One grim evening’: The Colonial Migrant in Britain

Caryl Phillips, acclaimed novelist and playwright delivered, this year’s William Matthews lecture, offering a moving and sobering view of the experience of the colonial migrant in Britain.

Jamaican Immigrants to Britain in 1948

22 Jun 1948, Tilbury, Essex, England, UK — Original caption: Emigration In Reverse – The Men From Jamaica Arrive At Tilbury. The ex troopship. Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Caryl Phillips begins by reflecting on the jubilation of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and the moment when in the telling of British history a representation of the HMT Empire Windrush emerges marking the era of mass settlement of British colonial subjects from the West Indies. A moment when it could be assumed that the Windrush generation was accepted as part of the narrative of British history, a moment Phillips says was eclipsed by the ‘antics’ of the British government who later, in 2018, would strip them of their jobs and homes, and even try to deport them on the basis that they were never really British citizens, despite having built lives in Britain at the invitation of the British government.

Phillips speaks of his own childhood, having arrived in Leeds aged four months, a second-generation child of colonial migrants from St Kitts, who as he grew up felt ‘no great love’ for Britain. He witnessed the ways in which it rejected the colonial migrants who came with the hope and promise of being welcomed into what they considered the ‘Motherland’ – this love for the country had always puzzled him.

Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips

He says for the colonial migrant, “they are not leaving home, rather they are leaving to go home”. A sentiment that was echoed by the 1948 British Nationality Act which granted members of British colonies citizenship in Britain.

Phillips tells us the story of the colonial migrant through the lens of two, David Oluwale and author Sam Selvon, in their respective cities; Leeds and London.

David Oluwale

David Oluwale

David Oluwale was a British Nigerian who in 1969 drowned in the River Aire in Leeds following years of abuse from gangs and the police after coming to Britain with dreams of becoming an engineer. Oluwale was met with disdain and life on the streets and was even committed to a psychiatric hospital for eight years, an experience that forever altered him. One might question why Oluwale never left Leeds, a place that had taken so much from him.

Oluwale’s experience is parallel to the protagonist of Selvon’s book, The Lonely Londoners, published in 1956. Moses Aloetta is a Trinidadian émigré who faces great hardship throughout the novel, yet in the end he cannot move away from his preconceived notions of Britain, and the promise it held.

Selvon’s book opens with the line ‘one grim winter evening’ encapsulating the often hostile and bleak circumstances colonial migrants found themselves in. But for people from the colonies who had been taught that they were British, their status as British subjects had come to be a part of their own identities, so to reject Britain was to reject a part of themselves. This allowed them to “absorb the abuse and humiliation” and participate in British society, staying and fighting to make a place for themselves.

The plight of the colonial migrant, Phillips reminds us, is echoed now in the fallout of the Windrush Scandal, for those who had come between the years 1948 and 1962 and found that ‘one grim winter evening’ was a reflection of the evening of their lives, characterised by betrayal and disappointment.

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“During my time at Birkbeck I saw over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends – it was the best time of my life!”

Xiayan Zeng graduated last week with an MA in Screenwriting. She shares her #BBKgrad story in this interview.

Xiayan Zeng

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?
I was studying for my PhD in China and I felt something wasn’t right. I’d studied playwriting for ten years and I wanted to learn more. I decided I should spend my gap year studying screenwriting in the UK to experience different cultures and meet new people.

I chose Birkbeck because I had a great interview with Professor Paul Gallagher, Associate Lecturer in Screenwriting, which confirmed my decision to study at the College.

Did you enjoy having lectures in the evening?
Yes, I loved having the lectures in the evening because my thoughts are a lot clearer at night.

In the daytime, I read scripts and wrote my assignments. Occasionally I went to see a play in the West End and visited museums or galleries, or just enjoyed sightseeing around London.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?
After I finished my degree, I returned to China to finish my PhD and now I am a Lecturer in a university, teaching playwriting.

As an international student, what would you say were the differences for you in culture that you noticed?
The main problem was the language barrier. English is not my mother tongue, so I sometimes struggled writing in English. My classmates and professors noticed this and they helped me correct my mistakes in my assignments and speaking.

Another difficulty I had was explaining my culture. The difference between Eastern and Western culture is something I wrote about in my assignments. Sometimes my classmates and the professors wouldn’t understand, but later it became clearer when they’d ask questions: “Why did your character do this?”, “Why did your character solve the problem in this way?” I would explain my thoughts and then they’d give me advice and suggestions on how I should write so it would be clearer to the reader.

Thanks to Professor Paul Gallagher, Professor Barbara Cox and so many other professors, I’ve got to know more about screenwriting and the difference between screen and theatre. I had a great time chatting with professors about my assignments, which made my life in London wonderful.

How did you settle into life in the UK?
I had a student community of mostly Chinese students, but I also felt I should spend more time communicating with other people. I communicated with people who don’t only speak Chinese, often having a drink with my classmates after lectures, which helped me to fit into London life.

Do you have any advice that you would give to other international students coming to study at Birkbeck?
I think for the full-time students, you may feel that there are a lot of assignments, but when you spend your time and you concentrate on them, you will find that you will successfully finish them.

And, as for the language – just communicate with classmates and your professors and don’t be ashamed of getting things wrong; you will find that it won’t be a problem.

During my year at Birkbeck, I have seen over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends.

It has been only a year in Birkbeck, but I can say it is the best year I’ve ever experienced!

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“It took two pregnancies, a fierce fight against cancer and finally a pandemic, but I made it, I graduated!”

Carmen Cinque graduated last week with a BA Modern Languages degree. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carmen Cinque with her family

When I enrolled on the first year of my course in 2015, I was pregnant. With my first daughter due to be born in the middle of the academic year I knew that studying would be no easy task. I was also working full time as a bookkeeper for a restaurant. However, I was highly motivated and eager to start my course – finally, at 36, after many professional and personal experiences, I was about to start studying to obtain my first degree.

My daughter was born at the beginning of January. I continued to study and complete assessments and exams thanks to the understanding and availability of lecturers and the support of my husband and sister. I even sat a German exam with my daughter in the room while I was breastfeeding! Everything was going well, but suddenly in spring, I started to feel very, very tired and unable to concentrate.

My doctor thought it was just the difficulty of reconciling everyday activities with caring for a little girl, and at first, I agreed with her. However, I did feel there was something more. So, after a lot of analysis, stress, frustration and many dead-end diagnoses, at the beginning of August 2016, I met a doctor who urged me to have a biopsy. I was given a horrible diagnosis: I had a rare form of pregnancy-related cancer called choriocarcinoma. My world crushed, my family and I had to deal with a long treatment and all its devastating side effects. I had to put my degree on hold. Chemotherapy did not allow me to take care of my daughter alone, let alone studying. I don’t deny – it was hard, but luckily in March 2017, I was cured. Still very weak, but cancer free.

I had doubts as to whether to start studying again or to drop out; I was scared and fragile. My husband, however, did not allow me to give up. In September I started my second year at Birkbeck and this turned out to be a great choice. It was the best way to pick up my life where I left it. Everything started to go well again. In November I fell pregnant, which wasn’t a surprise as we always wanted a second child – only it came a little earlier than expected! Oscar was born on 30 June this year – a week after my last exam and during the pandemic.

Beside learning a new language (German) and deepening my understanding of Portuguese, my experience at Birkbeck widened my horizons professionally and personally. It gave me the motivation to try and change my career path, and I plan to start a qualification soon to become an interpreter, thanks to my degree qualification and the knowledge I gained whilst studying.

2020 is a peculiar year, but the birth of my second child and graduation make it an exceptional year for me! I am so happy and proud of my achievements. It was not always an easy path but not trying is the biggest mistake to make in life and I am very grateful to the professors, my family, and my dear friends for the support I have received in this amazing journey. Studying at Birkbeck was a wonderful experience, a privilege and an important achievement in a phase so full of positive and negative events in my life.

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The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

Natalie Mitchell, a first-year MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, shares insights from Professor Marina Warner’s lecture that took place as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

City of women map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘City of Women 2.0’, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Professor Dame Marina Warner took her audience on a fascinating journey through the role of mapping in storytelling and memory, in her lecture, which forms part of the 100 Years of the University of London lecture series. Using Alfred Korzybski famous axiom ‘the map is not the territory’, which suggests that a map cannot encompass the true quality of a place, Professor Warner considered the re-imagining of place and how mapping can become a rebellious act.

She began the lecture considering the many roles of cartography in territory making, defining borders, resources, military and governance, and how this informs our memory of place. The map attempts to ‘actualise history’ through naming, marking and dividing, but the construction of history is a type of narrative. A point Professor Warner emphasised through the words history and story, which are the same in many languages. As such, mapping can control the narrative of a place and becomes an important tool for colonisers, although it may bear little resemblance to the reality of a place by its indigenous people.

Adam Dant – Shoreditch as New York – 2018

The activity of creating maps can also realise fiction, such as the detailed fictional maps in the novels Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, star maps give mythical gods a presence in reality through the stargazer’s eye and theme parks and Disney castles parody real locations through the child’s imagination. In this way, the fictional locations of stories can become real locations; these narratives ‘folding back’ onto the actual.

Professor Warner went on to suggest that the map can function in time as well as space, making the past present. This was particularly notable in Emma Willard’s mapping of aboriginal tribes in America and her Progress of the Roman Empire, charting time using the course of the Amazon river. These reworkings of maps can also perform a ‘historical resistance’ as seen in Layla Curtis’ NewcastleGateshead collaged map of all the places renamed after those cities, which highlights the colonial activity of claiming places through naming. Such use of cartography revealed the potential rebellious nature the renaming of maps can perform.

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease - Monarchs and Queens - 2010

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease – Monarchs and Queens – 2010

This type of resistance was expanded further by Professor Warner through many recent examples of the renaming and reworking of maps and places. In Paris in 2015, Osez le Feminisme flyered the city’s street signs, renaming them to notable women from history. Artists have also reimagined places via the redrawing of maps, such as Rebecca Solnit’s and Adam Dant’s maps, which create a visual narrative, questioning the authority of the map and returning to a cartography blending art and science. Similarly, Simon Patterson’s iconic reworking of the London tube map in his work The Great Bear renamed the stations after a myriad of famous and forgotten figures from history. Through each of her examples, Professor Warner showed how the reimagining of the map ‘makes the familiar unfamiliar’ and how a sense of place can be reclaimed by those in situ.

Simon Patterson - The Great Bear - 1992

Simon Patterson – The Great Bear – 1992

Professor Warner’s lecture was bookended by her recent work with a collective of young migrants in Palermo, Sicily, through the Stories in Transit workshop project Giocherenda. These workshops involved the young people developing stories of the city using the figure of The Genius of Palermo, a 15th century icon who has become a synonymous symbol of the city. The workshop took place around the city, where the young people placed the historical figure in different locations. Through this, they could develop their own sense of their new home in Palermo, but through the use of the city’s history. She expressed how it was the children who wanted to use mapping in their story creations and in doing so created a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.

Professor Warner concluded her lecture by emphasising the importance of continuing to create stories. Storytelling is an action and a way of history-making and in the days of fake news and big data, it is even more paramount.

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