Sunday, 25 September 2016

Bristol and reminders of colonialism

Bristol, in the West of England, has a distinctive accent with, as a particular characteristic, a tendency to add an ‘l’ to words that end with a vowel. “Africal,” they apparently say there, “is a malarial areal.”

It was fun to be there this weekend, partly because we saw friends I liked already but whom I shall miss even more after the wonderful time we’ve just spent with them. But the visit was also a success for allowing me at last to get to know the city well: I’ve been there at least a dozen times, but usually on fleeting visits, for work, turning up in the morning and clearing off again in the evening.

Not this time. We walked around the place, we sat on the top floor of an open-top bus like any tourists, we even took a boat trip around the harbour. Boat tours are particularly striking because they give such a lovely view of a city, from below, but also in the case of Bristol, because they show the might of the city as a port. It was seagoing trade that made Bristol great, as it did those other fine cities, Liverpool in north west England, or Nantes in western France – and predominantly in the same kind of trade: slaves. So many suffered and died in the past to make some wonderful cities today.

Edward Colston commemorated in Bristol
as a humanitarian and philanthropist
Thanks for a fortune made by enslaving Africans
What struck me most, though, was the guide on the bus, who spoke with the unmistakeable local accent. Though what touched me about that accent wasn’t hearing it there, but the memory it evoked of a time I heard it once before.

For many years, I travelled regularly to Northern Ireland for work. It was the time of the troubles and, though I never witnessed an attack, the atmosphere was strongly moulded by the threat: police stations were fortified, police looked like soldiers, soldiers were out doing police work. I became friendly with a particular taxi driver who regularly picked me up from the airport and ran me back at the end of my trip, and he would show me around the place too, including some districts which he entered with some reluctance, and left with equivalent alacrity.

One night, as he was driving me back to Aldegrove, Belfast International airport, out in the country south of Belfast, we were stopped by an army patrol. At least, I assume it was a patrol, though we only saw one soldier.

It was dark and the road was deserted. As he came over to the driver’s window, the soldier, helmeted, flak-jacketed, with a machine gun on his hip, looked the model of the arrogant warrior. But then he crouched down and we could see his face. He must have been nineteen. And then he spoke.

It was that accent. Bristol. Pure and round and unmistakeable.

And all I could think was, “what on Earth are you doing here? Young, totally uninvolved in these troubles, from a place not that many miles away but in a different world, policing an emergency in which you have absolutely no interest. Out on a dark road, at night, a figure of oppression to the opponents of a power exercised by people you’ve never met, and a target yourself.”

I’ve never felt the tragedy of colonialism more strongly.

British soldiers at a Northern Irish roadblock in 1988
Doing a favour to few, least of all themselves

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