13 June 1953: There's nothing like a Coronation to test one's scepticism, one's innate Republicanism

The novelist and short story writer Angus Wilson writing in the New Statesman on the Coronation festivities in Essex in 1953: "As our car came down the hill, we could see the jolly jack tar hats and ribbons that mark the merry morris, and there indeed it

"Throughout the country," the faintly contemptuous, ascetic voice of the B.B.C. news reader has told us to often in the last week, people have been doing this or that— "hoping against hope that the weather," "accompanying the Queen in their thoughts," rejoicing, and then, somewhat solemnly "taking their well-earned rest," or "going once more about their daily business," or, somewhat facetiously, "nursing the inevitable headache." The phrases are so stale that they probably evoke no image. Or, if they do, it is at the most a fleeting, slightly uncomfortable remembrance of that vast, disquieting body of people who do not live in London and whose actions, therefore, are at once "so important a social factor" and so improbable. A quick succession of visual images — provincial town balls, streets with trams, market crosses, slag heaps and seaside piers — may pass across one's mind like the horrible intimations of a thousand private lives outside our own that make an express train's progress through the London suburbs so disquieting an experience.

The whole thing is not a private London dream, sweet or nightmarish according to taste, not just yours and mine, but of all those familiar figures of "Housewives' Choice" and "Family Favourites." This time, indeed, I did not try to preserve the comfortable, little Londoner's view of England's rejoicings. Urged perhaps by some innate Republicanism, but far more probably by my foolish failure to secure a seat on the Procession route, I spent Coronation day in the most beautiful of Essex towns, and, undeterred by the rain that had swept the market square so carefully prepared for Olde Tyme Dancing and had dripped from the thatched roofs of a hundred stockbrokers', journalists' and publishers' country cottages, I returned there again last weekend to see the celebrations that closed this week of festivity.

The Trust hotel had been careful to provide television, so that Coronation day passed for us as it did for most others. Perhaps if I had viewed the ceremony in my home, I should have been able to preserve my scepticism, my innate Republicanism. Soothed by the familiarity of my own surroundings, the comments of my own small world, I should have sunk easily into my comfortable prejudices. As it was, I sat in a draught, surrounded by the uneasy comments of the saloon bar gang. Never have I seen Good-Scoutery less at ease; they had come with that Rotarian, have-the-next-one-on-me-old-boy jollity that they had found so infallible at a thousand business dinners, Legion reunions and family gatherings. It was a big, British occasion, and no people, of course, were more British than they. It was fascinating to see them fight the strange beauty, the formal Byzantinism of the ceremony that appeared upon the screen. They were prepared, of course, for an occasional catch in the throat, a moment of lowered head, but the elaborate grace before them demanded less perfunctory reverence. There is no English milieu less sympathetic than that of the Frothblowers' Anthem; it was nice to see the "gang" so put out when they least expected it.

It was a people, then, dazed with ritual that poured out at the afternoon's end into the Essex countryside, itself lush and sodden with rain, but lit with those strange grey and lemon lights that are a peculiar East Anglian beauty. We were promised dancing (modern) on the town square and dancing (Olde Tyme) in the Exchange. The same ubiquity of police, so peculiar in face of the much advertised inadequacy of the Force, reigned here as in London. The policemen, who forbade the few cars that ventured out to park in the space reserved for dancing, would have served to protect a minor Tito or Akihito. As it was, they helped to move the piano indoors, when it was finally decided to abandon outdoor dancing. It is usually said that youth today likes its pleasures machine-processed, ready made. I suspect that this means that they take pleasure for granted, which seems to me excellent; at any rate, it worked very well on a wet Coronation evening. They just went indoors and danced to an extremely good pair of dance bands, neither the typical B.B.C. genteel "sweet" band, nor its phoney idea of "hot" but first-rate rhythm, which to my delight was amplified so that I could hear "Bye, Bye Blues" in my bedroom well after midnight. It was Mum and Dad who were lost, not the young. For the older 1914 generation, of course, fun on such occasions has to be spontaneous, which means the old stereotyped singing of "A Long, Long Trail" and "Knees-up, Mother Brown." A few sad matrons and their British Legion men tried to keep up the tradition, but even their hearts of oak were eventually daunted by the drizzle. As they departed, dejected, the strains of "Pat Him on the Boko " could be heard triumphant from the dance hall. The moral of which is that old English fun may be all very well, but the Palais de Dance lasts forever.

The only peculiar feature of these Coronation celebrations occurred during the firework display. I was busy dissociating myself from the children, who in face of all police prohibitions were determined to get in the line of fire, when I turned to see a line of dwarfs drawn up black and threatening on the edge of the common against the skyline. Who could they be? Martians, no doubt. What better time and place for an interplanetary invasion? But no, I was informed that this was a nearby private school come to observe the pyrotechnics, drawn up at a safe distance from the town's possible infection. It cannot be said that the townspeople objected. They were used no doubt to the private school headmaster's medieval belief that they were infected with bubonic.

In short, the Coronation celebrations, though pleasant, were quiet. The real festivities, we were told, would come at the weekend. And so Saturday morning found us speeding beneath an Essex sky less impressionistically impressive but more promising. At Dunmow, the usual collection of commuting gentry in careful tweeds and yellow waistcoats were saying "Here's how," while their wives discussed Princess Margaret's dress over double gins. They had all "had seats.” But as we passed through the villages, stands and marquees gave promise of the day's entertainment.

We prepared for the festivities by lunch at Long Melford, where some of the best food in England may be eaten. (This is not an advertisement, for there are two hotels in the village.) We then set off for the pageant at Castle Hedingham. On a green sward before the Norman Keep — curiously unreal and like a Victorian stage set — Queen Elizabeth received addresses from Will Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and Lord Burghley dressed — God knows why! — as a clergyman. If the Keep was Victorian, so indeed were the actors, dressed in Elizabethan costume of that curious frumpy kind that recalls photographs of Ellen Terry as Viola and Beerbohm Tree as Wolsey. The high note, perhaps, was reached when Thomas Morley introduced Her Majesty — always and entirely like Joyce Grenfell — to the madrigal singers, who proceeded to give us that sort of Elizabethan part-singing that belongs irrevocably to Edward German's Merrie England. However, the Pageant was certainly the big draw for the gentry, mostly the commuting barristers and stockbrokers in their shooting brakes and land-rovers. There were, however, one or two of that fabulous species — the really rich — busy with field glasses on the steps of their Rolls. I was particularly pleased with an elderly lady who showed her high Nancy Mitford station by a flashing array of diamonds worn with a tweed suit. She had carefully enamelled, inches thick, that disappointed, sulky face which only the very wealthy former beauties wear. For myself, I was happier in the lovely village of Finchingfield where sports were in progress run by the villagers for the villagers. But England is a class-conscious country and, after watching the under-tens bob for apples and the over-sixteens joust over a stream, we suddenly felt intruders and left for Thaxted, the Mecca of all intellectuals.

Already, as our car came down the hill, we could see the jolly jack tar hats and ribbons that mark the merry morris, and there indeed it was, the annual festival, with more than fifty schoolmasters sitting cross-legged in coloured braces, some earnest and hearty, others like Sir Stafford Cripps. A large crowd contained a sprinkling of first-rate Osbert Lancaster intellectuals, including an old lady with grey earphones, purple ribbons round her hair and throat, a purple cloak, and a flatly benign expression that smiled at once upon a Co-operative Guild future and a Maypole past. In a very short time, however, the charm both of the music and steps banished my sense of patronage. The truth was that I thoroughly enjoyed the morris. Indeed, so much so, that the pageant at Toppesfield was almost over when we reached there, too far gone, at any rate, to do more than register the look on all faces that means "the afternoon has been a success." Afterwards at supper at a nearby house I was told that the hostess had been a great success as Roxana; another guest told me he had been playing Wamba the Jester, while a lady who arrived late explained how exhausted she was what with the rehearsal of Benjie's opera and playing Katharine Howard." Roxana, Wamba and Katharine Howard, a combination that nicely expresses the eclectic, faintly mysterious note of our English countryside festivities. 

The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II on the road in 1953. Photograph: Getty Images.
PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist