It must have been a decade or more ago that a conversation at a dinner party prompted me to reflect on complicity in colonialism/imperialism. I drafted a blog but never posted it. Every few years I would have a look at the draft, tinker with it, and then move on. Now I think it's about time to put it out there - nothing all that revealing, but all the same worth posting:
I have thought quite a lot recently about complicity in colonialism. I once said at a dinner party how surprised I was by the number of friends from the Home Counties who had someone in the family’s past who had done something in India – and in my upbringing I couldn’t think of anyone who had an India hand among their antecedents (apart from perhaps a bit of war service). I then added that the north was less complicit in the Imperial project.
This drew a vehement snort of derision from a black feminist present. And it has made me think –
My maternal great-grandfather from Belfast was a merchant seaman who sailed the world, my mother grew up with the Hindi-derived Glaswegian term ‘peely wally’, her father worked in those hubs of Empire Harland and Wolff and then the Govan shipyards and ended his working life as a foreman in an engineering factory in South Africa.
On my father’s side, one family member spent time in Argentina, my grandfather’s woollen factory was built around export (particularly to the Gulf - I remember collecting the Saudi postage stamps) and when it closed, the machinery was parcelled off and sent to India. My father had war service as a trainee pilot in Rhodesia.
I joined the World Service, and went out to India (pith helmet metaphorically in my baggage) to work for the most Imperial of news services, and came back with a PIO card and and what would once have been called a bibi (aka Anu). Much of my historical research and writing has been about Kashmir - even though I don't speak or read Kashmiri or Urdu.
So I can hardly say that Empire didn’t intrude into my and my family’s life.
I came across this scene along the canal path at Camden Lock. A porthole to see what's happening at the Hawley Wharf development site - once the home to spectacular street art - had been taken over as an art installation, with the result you can see above. And yes, the hand is real.
You can get more of a sense of the place from the images below.
This is Ranga Bedi, at work in his study at his wonderful home in Bangalore. He and his wife Umi - who began their married life as tea planters in Upper Assam - were my very generous hosts earlier in the month. I am writing a biography of Ranga's mother, Freda Bedi - and here you can see Ranga looking through the rich cache of letters, documents and photos relating to his mother which he very kindly allowed me to go through.
On the wall behind Ranga is Umi's painting of Kabir Bedi as a novice monk. Kabir (yes, that Kabir Bedi) is Ranga's younger brother, and in the 1950s, when Freda became absorbed by Buddhism during trips to Burma, he accompanied her and for a while was a novice in a Buddhist order.
I also visited Kabir and his wife Parveen during my trip to India this month, and they too were enormously welcoming and generous with access to documents - and were happy to share personal memories. I am very grateful to them.
Ranga's life in some ways maps Freda's own (if you want to find out more about Freda, I've recently written online pieces about her for an English newspaper and for an Indian website).
His parents, Freda Houlston and B.P.L. Bedi, married in Oxford in June 1933. They moved to Berlin where B.P.L. had a research scholarship. By the time they arrived there - after a motor tour across Europe as a honeymoon - Freda was pregnant. Ranga was born in the German capital - brought up in the huts his parents built at Model Town in Lahore - educated at Tyndale Biscoe school in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar - and by the time his mother became an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, Ranga was working on the tea estates.
Both Ranga and Kabir - and indeed their sister, Guli, who lives in the US - are immensely proud of their parents.
And here's perhaps my favourite portrait photo of her - probably taken in Lahore in the early 1940s, when she would have been 30 or a little over..
Storm Katie certainly made an impact in my corner of NW5. At about first light this morning, it brought crashing down an old and decrepit tree in the corner of the grounds of our development, It fell across Dartmouth Park Hill, complete blocking the road. Happily no one was hurt and not much damage done. And the tree surgeon and his team were there impressively promptly. As you can see, they cut up the trunk - and have placed the big pieces either on the side of the pavement or at the edges of our car park area.
Because the tree was on private land, we will get a bill for the cost of clearing the fallen tree, and we will have to arrange the disposal of the sections of the trunk. But at least, as mishaps go, this could have been a lot, lot worse.
From the top floor of King's College this weekend, I caught this view down the river - with a spring mist hanging heavy over the Thames and giving a rather romantic allure to this cityscape. In the foreground is the courtyard of Somerset House. The photo was taken in the afternoon and in colour- though it feels more like a monochrome morning.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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