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31 January 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:39pm

Why I joined the protest at the Churchill-themed Blighty Café

We chose to question the narrative of history by simply quoting words which Churchill used himself.

By Shukri Habib Ali

At a glance, Blighty Café appears to be another one of those trendy and sophisticated coffee shops that offer the terribly appealing combination of tasteful beverages, off-beat music and the inviting aroma of freshly-baked sourdough bread. As a university student living in the area, of course, I couldn’t resist. Sounds perfect, right? Except, sitting in the mock air-raid shelter, drinking my flat white, I couldn’t help but feel ever more uncomfortable.

Blighty Café is located in North London and is not your average hipster café; Churchill memorabilia abounds, the outside area is modelled as a Second World War air-raid shelter, and there is even a life size model of Churchill so you can sip your coffee in the company of the revered wartime leader. Harmless? Chic? Unfortunately, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was deeply disrespectful to glorify Winston Churchill, without mentioning those who truly suffered at the hands of colonial rule.

Being of mixed Pakistani and English descent, colonial history has always been very close to home, and uncovering the horrors of British imperialism was a deeply upsetting experience. Churchill cannot be disentangled from this bloody colonial history. His instrumental involvement in the Bengal famine, his blasé attitude towards South African concentration camps and declarations such as “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph” have understandably lead me to question his heroism. With all this in mind, when my flatmate invited me to attend a surprise performance protesting against the café’s decor, I felt my presence would be justified.

“CHURCHILL WAS A RACIST!” Fifteen of us visited the packed-out Blighty Café on a windy Saturday morning. A silence fell amongst the customers as we recited Churchill’s racist outbursts; people were listening quite intently. Our performance lasted no more than five minutes. There was surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) little friction; except for one member of the cafe’s staff shouting at us as we left: “Churchill fought for all of our freedom!” I felt such a response rather confusing after we had just quoted Churchill as saying: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” I pondered on the man’s retort on the way home; yes, Churchill did fight for all of our freedom, but he also hated South Asians and said that they followed a beastly religion. Should I then be content with businesses in my local area celebrating his legacy?

The coverage of the protest by The Sun and The Daily Mail in the days following our performance have triggered a racist backlash, with one member of the group singled out for character assassination. We might have intended to make people feel a bit uncomfortable, but at the end of the day it was a peaceful protest. Rather than personal attacks, the newspapers could engage in a debate about our historical narratives. The coverage also noted that, like many young people, some of our group supported Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Yet we did not choose to involve Corbyn in our performance, and of course he is entitled to his own opinion on these matters.

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On the café’s website, it is stated: “Blighty’s mission is to make the world a closer place by celebrating and improving the relationships between the people and nations of the 52 members of the commonwealth.” That sounds wonderful. I just don’t believe that glorifying figures of history with racist views is the right way to do so. The owner of the café told The Sun that Churchill did “some racist and ignorant things” but his flaws “showed he was human”. If I could ask the café owner to do one thing, it would be to read more into the darker side of Churchill’s legacy, and its effects on colonised people.

We chose to question the narrative of history by simply quoting words which Churchill used himself. It seems ludicrous that the press are so keen to shut us down. One has to ask whether they are silencing a group of students or the words of Churchill which they would rather forget.

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The Blighty Café did not respond to a request for comment, but the owner has written an article about his establishment here