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Bruce Parry on mindfulness, activism and revisiting Tribe

Can mindfulness save the planet? Or does a focus on inward transformation risk depoliticising viewers? 

In the mid 2000s, Bruce Parry's BBC series Tribe helped turn anthropology into prime-time viewing. Tripping on jungle-drugs and drinking the blood of sacrificial bulls made Parry’s name around the world. Yet a reputation for macho derring-do failed to bring the presenter peace of mind. Sipping tea in the lounge of a central London hotel, Parry tells me how these experiences precipitated a form of breakdown.

Tribe was a very high octane, stimulating overload," he says. “I was surfing the wave of stimulation, going to all these different places, and then coming back and leading a celebrated life here." 

Then when he took some time away to film a series in the Arctic, it became clear that something was very wrong: “Suddenly I found myself on the Greenland plateau, walking every day for three months, with no stimulation at all. It’s like being in detention where there’s nothing to grapple with apart from your own mind – and I realised my mind was out of control.”

The result of these reflections is a new, feature-length film, Tawai: a voice from the forest, which sees Parry revisit the tribe that affected him most all those years ago: the Penan of Borneo.

In this new format, Parry is as charming a tour-guide as ever (he casually says “I’ll have the same” as we order our drinks at the hotel, giving the impression being easy and amenable is his default state). Yet Tawai is clearly a more troubling story than that told in Tribe, and Parry is a more troubled man.

“My biggest feeling when I walking down the river towards them was ‘Oh my God – I think it’s actually worse than when I was here before’,” he says of the deforestation and pipeline-construction that continue to threaten the Penan’s way of life.

Parry’s own culpability in the global, consumer-driven economy driving this change clearly weighs on his conscience. As do other aspects of the Penan’s life he overlooked on his earlier encounter: “Even though the strap line to my Tribe films was ‘Bruce Parry, One of the Tribe’, I realised that I had always been looking at them through the prism of my own scientific mind,” he says, “I’d always had a ‘Yeah, but we know better now’ kind of attitude.”

He now hopes to persuade Tawai’s viewers that the path to a happier, more meaningful existence lies in transforming the way we see the world – and ourselves. From the meditative hunting rituals of the Penan tribe, to the religious teachings of Sadhus on the banks of the River Ganges, he is keen to make the case for the overlooked art of self-reflection, or “Mindfulness” as it has become known in the West.

“When I was first doing the Tribe programs I had no idea about these things and wasn't really interested in them particularly,” he says of the thinking behind meditation and mindfulness. “I’d had experiences of the interconnected cosmos and stuff when doing some of the jungle medicines – but I'd always just put it in a box and labelled it 'You've just done a drug'”.

Yet after his trip to Greenland this attitude changed; he came to the realisation that he was addicted to stimulation and took up meditation on the advice of a friend: “In the journey of learning to meditate I realised that so much of my need to consume and to live this fast moving life, was born about as a result of stuff that was going on inside me.”

“The net result was that I was calmer, I was able to be more still, and I didn't need to run around consuming. And that also made me realise: wow, there's something in this for us all. Because as a society at large we are rushing around, consuming, and being distracted, and we are a lot of us carrying a lot of pain, culturally.”

His honesty is beguiling. But as Parry forms his thesis, the film's leaps from personal salvation to political healing often feel like they may be skipping over a few steps. The film doesn’t spent much time exploring the way indigenous activists are fighting to stop the dams and pipelines, for instance.

So I ask Parry if he worries that, by focusing on inner growth, mindfulness might risk neglecting more concrete action in the political world? Can meditation really save the planet?

“It's a really good question and it’s about balance,” he responds. “When I went down the Amazon it was so clear to me that I could have got involved with the NGOs or the activists, and talked even more about the cocaine, or the soil, or the logging, or the slavery. But while these issues all incredibly important … it struck me that there was a deeper problem: and that's us in our society.”

“It's actually not very likely that [looking inside more] is suddenly going to have everyone disappearing on their own inner journey. But what it might do is allow us to see ourselves in a broader context; it might allow us to see ourselves as part of it,” he says. “If I go away and do a five day meditation retreat (which before I would just have thought what a selfish, self-indulgent waste of time), I come out clearly wanting to reconnect with my family and clearly wanting to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Where this argument appears to go slightly awry, however, is in the connection Parry is keen to build with the ideas of British neuroscientist, Dr Iain McGilchrist. Neither in the film nor in interviewing Parry, can I quite grasp whether McGilchrist is arguing that the brain’s two hemispheres are both needed to achieve feelings of interconnectivity with the world, or just the one side? And is this dichotomy the same for Asian cultures as it is for the West?

Despite this, however, the idealism of Parry’s quest still pulls me through the film. He is an undeniably likeable travel companion and his willingness to acknowledge where he has gone wrong before – both in this film’s lack of female voices, and in his earlier work – is redeeming.

So while his new plan to start an eco-community in Wales also fills me with slight trepidation (note Channel 4’s recent Eden debacle), I can’t wait to see what his idealism leads him to next.

“Especially if I want to have kids, it takes a community to raise a child, and right now I'm displaced. So I want to find that. And that doesn't mean to say I couldn't go to a lovely village and find wonderful community there too - I’m not in any way casting aspersion on the wonderful communities that are already here – but I’m not a member of one yet”, he explains. “And if other people are up for the egalitarianism and all of that too – I think there's something in it.” 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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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