Monday, November 12, 2018

When Malcolm X Came Calling to Oxford

Conversations with Henry Brownrigg - part 1

TWO YEARS after his death, now I realise that Henry Brownrigg disappeared from the stage at the wrong moment. His sane voice and sober views are most acutely missed by those who knew him. I am one of them, because when he died just before Christmas in 2016, I had an active  dialogue going with him that came to an abrupt end. Ever since, I had occasions to return to many of those issues we had been discussing, time and again.

For a person so tuned to the world and its affairs as Henry used to be, 2016 was a wrong time  to take a bow. That was the year the world suddenly ceased to be what it used to be, entering a new phase in its history. Cataclysmic changes everywhere, events so vast and deep for a sober historian like Henry to grapple with. In India, that was the year of the demonetisation.  It was the year of Brexit in the UK, and in the US it was the year of the arrival of Donald Trump.

That was the year the liberal, democratic world came to a grinding halt; the year xenophobia became official policy and the politics of liberalism gave way to extreme forces from the left as well as the right. As a journalist, I had to deal with most of these things on a daily basis, and often I found myself flummoxed by the rush of events. It was a time of fake news and lynchings triggered by rumours spread on social media, when truth became a farcical memory as the brave new age of post- truth came to be born.

In such times, Henry was the one you could turn to -- a person of great integrity and fairness; a man with a lifetime of experiences and wisdom. Here, I wish to revisit some of the issues we had discussed in the final years of his life, in his own words as far as possible, with some comments on my part to make the context clear.

Before I move on to Henry’s own words, a few words from his lifelong friend Tony Shaw that was read out at his memorial service early in 2017. Shaw remembers the time when Henry was the secretary of the Oxford Union in 1964, the year when Henry played host to Malcolm X, the American black revolutionary who was shot dead a few weeks later. That was also the year when South Africa’s apartheid rulers imprisoned Nelson Mandela for a life time in jail.

“Henry took the lead in instigating a major protest against the visit of the South African ambassador after the regime had imprisoned Mandela. Four students were severely punished--two men, passengers in Henry’s car, and two fellow officers of the Oxford Union, president Eric Abra’ams and treasurer Tariq Ali. Henry, secretary of the union, was not punished; that  upset him...:” 

Tariq Ali, in his autobiography of the sixties,  The Street-Fighting Years, has described the ambush on the South African ambassador’s convoy in Oxford by the protesting students. He skips what really happened during the evening and instead focuses on his long conversation with the black leader from America. Recently, Rip Bulkeley, a British poet and historian who was Henry’s contemporary at Oxford, added some more details on the incident in a memoir on his Oxford days. “Selecting as the venue the Northgate Hall [for a session with the ambassador by the OU Conservative Association] directly opposite the Oxford Union, was bad enough; but on top of that they had covertly booked the Union’s Morris Room to serve as green room for the ambassador and his bodyguards”. The ambassador was not harassed as he moved to the meeting hall but a couple of windows were broken, he says. “The only real casualty of the fracas was the ambassadorial conveyance, which departed minus its radio aerial and the air from at least one tyre,” he reports. He also names the two hecklers in Henry’s car who shouted “Free Mandela!” as the ambassador's car tyre was being replaced and faced punishment: Simon Petch and Alan Gibson.

This sense of adventure never really left Henry even in his mature years. Years later, he did something really dangerous during the Sri Lankan civil war. Tony writes: “During the civil war in Sri Lanka, he smuggled people across the frontlines in the boot of his car. Both ways: government sympathisers one way, Tamils the other. He was always totally indiscriminate in the people he helped.”

Henry once told me he had few friends from his school days.“I have often thought that my life began the day that I arrived at university,” he said.  He spent his childhood in a public school, and having never had anything to do with these elite British institutions, I could not see why it was so. Then Tony came to my rescue again: “His friend Nico Morrison told me recently what Henry had hinted at over many years [ago]...that his parents and his school, Winchester, had instilled a harsh, almost brutal regime of loyalty, discipline and honour. To be seen to conform was the route to survival. It was not a happy childhood.”

And Henry remained a rebel all his life. He never conformed to anything. Decades later, Henry wrote to me: “I have never really been attracted to Marxism, and still less to Communism. The discipline does not appeal to me at all. If I wanted someone to give me orders I would join the Army or the Catholic church.”

He had very pleasant memories about his Oxford days: ”I joined the Labour Club in my first term at Oxford and was elected to the committee at the end of term. Joining Labour was a bit rebellious for me because I came from a very Conservative family. My mother hung her head in shame, but my father was secretly rather pleased and boasted to everyone that he had this very red son. Against my wishes the Labour Club invited him as a guest speaker. (He was then well known and very controversial - a retired naval officer who had become chief executive of a large independent TV company called Associated-Rediffusion and was also chairman of Independent Television News). His talk to the club was not quite as disastrous as I had feared, though they gave him quite a hard time. I later stood as chairman of the Labour Club, on a Social Democrat centre-left ticket, but was unsurprisingly defeated by my far left opponent. At that time Labour was deeply divided over whether Britain should pull out of NATO. A political opponent of mine was Tariq Ali who became the best known UK student leader during the heady days of 1968.”

Oxford gave him some of the best memories and friendships in his life, like his association with Eric Abrahams, the Union president during his time. He was happy recalling the 1964 event of Malcolm X visit on its 50th anniversary:

“This week I had a somewhat unusual experience. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the visit to the Oxford Union (which is an elite debating society where several future Prime Ministers made their student reputations) of Malcolm X, the black American revolutionary. At that time I was the Union's secretary, and part of my job was to meet speakers at the station, take them to their hotel, and make sure that they had everything they needed. In the evening Malcolm was taken to dinner at the best restaurant in Oxford by Eric Abra’ams, the Union's Jamaican president, Tariq Ali and myself. Since I was the only white guy among the four I was uncharacteristically silent. The next day Malcolm spoke in a debate on the motion that 'Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice'. He gave a very good speech, particularly as he was quite unused to the British parliamentary style of debating. The BBC recorded this, and it has now (as they say) gone viral on the net since Malcolm's reputation has revived in the last few years among the young generation.  

“Now somebody has written a book entitled 'Malcolm X at the Oxford Union', and I was invited back to the Union for the launch event. The debating chamber was packed out. A group of black school kids came down from Manchester. Malcolm's impressive nephew flew in from Boston. Sadly the former president, Eric, with whom I later shared a house in London, died a couple of years ago, but he was represented by his sister. We went on for a buffet dinner, and I was feted as an older statesman who had actually had dinner with the great man. But the truth of the matter is that I felt that my presence at a celebration of black consciousness was really extremely bogus.”

Henry’s description of this 1964 meeting in Oxford got me so excited as I grew up in the seventies as a student activist, a time when the world appeared to be on a revolutionary wave. Malcolm X and Tariq Ali were legendary names to our generation. So I pestered him for details. What did they discuss at the dinner, where did they eat and how the evening went off...?

“[We] took him out to dinner at the best restaurant in Oxford. It was called Elizabeth. As the only white guy among the four I was uncharacteristically quiet. The next day we held the debate, which was filmed by BBC TV. For Malcolm this was of course an entirely new form of public speaking. He was used to talking into half a dozen microphones to a rapturous crowd, whereas the parliamentary style involves short speeches and the cut and thrust of debating with opposing speakers. We were all amazed at how quick he was to adapt to this, and he made a very eloquent and passionate speech which left a deep impression on his audience and on the wider public watching it on TV.”

“This was on December 3rd 1964. On February 21st Malcolm was assassinated in New York.

 “No, I don't remember what we ate. Heck, it was fifty years ago. Nor do I remember the details of our conversation, and now I wish that I had kept a note of it. Malcolm was not especially friendly or especially aloof. I think that he must have found the whole Oxford situation very different from what he was used to and was probably a bit on his guard with all of us. The conversation was about politics and black consciousness in Britain. There had been a general election a few weeks earlier in which a safe Labour seat had been won by a maverick Tory campaigning on the slogan 'If you want a nigger neighbour vote Labour'. To be fair, this guy had been disowned by the Tory leadership, but it was understandably the hot issue of the day. This was really the nadir of race relations in Britain. I must tell you sometime about the time I found myself making a speech to a fascist rally!

“When we left university Eric and I shared a house in London, and he became BBC TV's first black reporter. He went on to become Minister of Tourism in Jamaica, but fell out with the Prime Minister, Seaga, and eventually left active politics and ran a political chat-show. I last saw him in London maybe four years ago. Sadly he died two years ago. Tariq is still a friend of mine, though he is well to the left of me politically. I last saw him in 2012 when he took me to lunch at an Italian restaurant.”

Henry was often left of the centre, generally wary of the pitfalls of exteme positions. He returned to his differences with Tariq Ali on another occasion, when we were discussing an article in LRB in which Tariq dealt with the recent Greek debt crisis.

“Tariq is eloquent, as always. This is his comfort zone - the world of demonstrations and resolutions and anti-capitalist attitudes. But, whether Greece has a left government or a right one it still has to address its deeply inefficient and corrupt economy, and Tariq doesn't really have anything to say about this. No doubt he is right in saying that German arms manufacturers and the likes of Goldman Sachs have been complicit in creating this situation, so the frugal Germans versus profligate Greeks cliche is two dimensional. But where there is corruption there are always going to be people ready to take advantage of it. The challenge now is to create a culture where this is no longer tolerated.”

Henry was not impressed by slogans and pious pledges. For him, the road to hell was paved with good intentions. The old communist regimes were one example. Their hypocrisy was something that he laughed at. He had similar views on the Corbynistas who had taken over the     Labour party in the UK. He mercilessly poured cold water on my enthusiasm for the new labour leader:

“I am afraid that I do not at all share your enthusiasm. Firstly, Corbyn is a second-rater. Secondly, his ambition seems to be to take us back to the disastrous situation we were in during the 1970s and 80s, when the economy was in chaos and everyone seemed to be on strike. Today we have some of the highest growth and lowest unemployment in Europe.  In answer to your last email, there is indeed a turn to the left but it is the activists who are turning, not the public. None of the opinion polls suggest that the public wants a far left government, and indeed they have only just elected a Tory one. When Marxist parties stand in elections they usually get under 5% of the vote and lose their deposit. Corbyn will have a brief honeymoon because he is a new face, but he is not at all a credible prime minister. Speaking personally I feel completely disenfranchised by the absence of a sensible centre-left party which reflects my views.”

I started this note with some comments on Henry’s school and the few friends he had from that phase in his life. I took up the matter with him sometime in April 2016, and he was so forthcoming about his childhood and younger days:  

“From the age of eight I was sent to boarding school, which we misleadingly call public school. I hated the first one. The second, Winchester College, was intellectually challenging, and it got me into Oxford.  If I did not make lasting friends at school it was mostly my own fault. The schools were sports-mad, and my immediate contemporaries were high-flying athletes whereas I was useless at most team games. At home I was made to mix with kids from the same background as myself. In the holidays I would go to two formal dances a week, wearing stiff formal clothes. I had nothing in common with these people. When my father died we moved house, and within a year I had broken contact with all of them.

“Oxford was for me amazing. It was the first time I had met people from a different social background or foreign countries. I had always been a bit precocious about politics because my father loved discussing it with me, and I quickly decided that the crucial conflict in 1961 was
between the Labour left and right wings rather than between Labour and the Tories. This analysis was correct. If the left had won, as it very nearly did, the party would have withdrawn from NATO and adopted an, at best, neutralist position between the USA and the USSR. Anyhow, I joined the Oxford University Labour Club, was rapidly elected to the Executive Committee, and became political organiser of the moderate (Gaitskellite) faction. A satirical magazine nicknamed me Henry Electionrigg, though that was a joke. I was later the Labour Club's treasurer and was Secretary of the prestigious Oxford Union.

“Because of my father's new job we had moved to London. Instead of the old circle of Army Majors and rural worthies my parents now moved in elite circles. So I would come home and find that they were entertaining Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, or the Archbishop of York.  This was heady stuff. I got a job in a bank, which I hated, and then an international mining company, which I loved, and started being sent to third world countries including India. I remained a Labour activist but at a very junior level - ward secretary.”

I am really thankful to that mining company because it was they who made him travel to India in mid-seventies that began a life-long association with this country.

Photo courtesy: the Brownrigg family, UK.

(To be continued in part two.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Looming Violence, Political Threats and a Dispirited Media: On the Media Scene in Kerala

THERE ARE strident calls upon the media to make amends for its omissions and commissions, its pervasive intrusions into the privacy of individuals and the havoc it has wrought in the lives of many unfortunate victims. As a media person, I have always been extremely worried about these tendencies on the part of the media and have expressed my views that the media should introspect, and try be a responsible player in our democratic polity.

But the media, at the same time, cannot remain a toothless entity. It has necessarily to be aggressive, it has to gate-crash into domains that are closed to public review, and bring an objective view of things and developments to the public.

This is a tricky situation. How to strike a fine balance between the concerns of the public's right to information and the individual's right to privacy? Who is a private individual and who is a public person? How to define them and how to strike this nuanced position while reporting on them and their activities? And what constitutes private activity and public activity and where does the line of private activity of a public person and public activity of a private person merges or demarcates?

For almost a quarter century I have agonized over these questions and recently when I saw these clamours for public apology from our media to an American academic for some reports against him, I was thinking about these things again.

Here let me say that I am taking up the case of Dr Richard Franke only as a case study and I do not in anyway wish to express an opinion on his personal or academic activity. I presume that he is a well-meaning academic genuinely interested in Kerala and its people and all the past calumny against him, enumerated in the recent book by Dr Thomas Isaac and Mr N P Chandrasekharan and known to us Malayalis through various news media in the past few years, are simply baseless and the figment of the imagination of a politically motivated media.

Now a few questions arise. I will take up only two right now. First, how far the demands for an apology are legitimate; and two, whether there is any substance to the charge that the reports in media against Dr Franke proved to be an infringement on academic freedom?

This plethora of media campaign against Dr Franke was launched by Patom magazine of Mr Sudheesh, which was later taken up by many other Malayalam newspapers and other publications. The motivated nature of these campaigns was self evident, and most readers remained un-persuaded by most of these charges levelled against Dr Franke, Dr Isaac and a few others. It was a political shadow-boxing within the CPM, to which most of those involved in this battle actually belonged.

That means, the entire episode was part of our contemporary political life in the past few years. All the players were public persons and most of them were in the game for gains of a political nature and are endowed with political power in various ways.

Still, they make a camouflage attack on the media as if there was an infringement on media ethics. Indeed there was twisting of media ethics because the media often failed to check the authority of news items fed to them, but that in no way could be a case for seeking an apology from the media or the launch of an Inquisition from politicians. If anyone had been injured in such a scenario, it was the media itself because they suffered in their credibility, but here again there is no way a media organization can cross check such items fed to them because the Communist parties work behind iron curtains. They will not respond to media inquiries, but they still expect the media to play by rules. That is a very funny idea about democratic ways of functioning, indeed. A similar example could be when someone say, "head I win, tail you lose...!"

The second aspect that needs probing is whether there is any infringement on academic freedom. Dr Franke appears to be a US academic with some long- term connections with Kerala and has done some serious works here. He has been generally enthusiastic about Kerala and its development models though many may have differences with his points of view.

The charge is that his explanations were not given its due and that the campaign had been continued without any hitch even after such an explanation was offered. But why did Dr Franke become an object of attack? Was it because he was from US or was it because he was inadvertently (or perhaps even deliberately) involved in the CPM inner struggles?

The fact of the matter is that Dr Fanke became a target not because he was an academic or he was from US, but because he was seen to be taking a big role behind the curtains; being close to leaders in one faction in CPM and was also seen to be working with them on certain areas of serious concern to Kerala society and politics. When you are in politics, you are bound to receive attacks. Here, you see nothing academic, but everything is political. And in a political society, if anyone wants to exempt themselves from public criticism, why not take a leave and go back to your ivory towers, gentlemen? Why blame media in an injured tone when you confront your own battered pubic image?

When I launched this series of thoughts on the need for critical engagement on the part of media, I was aware of the severe accusations launched by this book.

But now that even a normally sober Sajan joins the brigade of critics, I must respond. I know Sajan himself had some part to play in it because he was among those experts who had read the text before it was published. Hence when I go ahead with my comments I hope Sajan would not get hurt, like the good comrade Ramakumar who finds me weak and unconvincing

I must say I do share a large part of the criticisms raised against the media in the book by Dr Isaac and Chandrasekharan, though I am not convinced about the premises on which they do so.

First, what kind of a book is this? Is it simply a partisan propaganda work by a group of individuals who belong to a political party, or is it a sincere attempt to study the inner workings of the media and its limitations in our society?

It started out as a serious critique and then sadly ends up as a partisan propaganda work which falls flat in convincing the reader of the objectivity of the arguments and the sincerity of their purpose. They highlight issues that are convenient to them and ignore issues which are not suitable to their purpose.

I will take up just one or two examples from the book to argue my points. First, it says that after the days of 'liberation struggle' when media played a critical part in attacking the Communists, it was in 2000s that the media took up such a concerted role. The People's Plan and Lavalin reporting are two major points they use to drive home this argument.

What they conveniently refuse to discuss is the political origins of this media strategy. They are quick to deride the media while they are unwilling to discuss what were the reasons which prompted the CPM to set up a number of investigation commissions in the State and local level in these days? What were the findings of these commissions and what did it tell the party about its inner workings ?

Now the defence will come that these are internal matters of the party. But here they are attacking the media for reporting things based on internal information, and even in the cases where such official commissions were set up why can't the party reveal all that they came by?

That would put a question mark on the sincerity of purpose and the manufactured consent that the media is the villain of the piece. But the media has been mainly a tool in the hands of the two powerful groups in the CPM and both groups had made much use of it. But unfortunately such a complex scenario of cynical use and misuse of media in the internal power struggles and the naked fights for control of the party never gets any mention here.

In the study on People's Plan, they say it was the media which had destroyed such a major effort at decentralization of power. Then they go ahead with the Sudheesh-Patom sob story and says the media parroted all that ultimately killing the programme.

This is less than a half truth. They do not even look at the various steps in the evolution of the People's Plan and where it actually went awry. If they had, they would have seen that it was the inherent weaknesses in the plan implementation and its meagre results compared to the Himalayan hopes it had generated, that was the real problems for its failure.

This dichotomy of what is actually achievable and the insurmountable hopes it could generate, leading to inevitable disillusionment which the writers do accept as a fact, had been pointed out right from the beginning by experienced and sober critics as you can see from the critical articles in the anthology, People's Plan: An Experiment in Decentralised Planning, edited by me and published by Calicut Press Club in 2000 based on a workshop organized by none other than the media people who are now facing the music for its failure! One hoped at least almost one decade on, Dr Isaac and others would show a little more willingness for soul-searching on why it failed instead of the easy of option of media-bashing.

But the gem comes in a comment where they assert, it was a sense of guilty consciousness on the part of media people, most of whom were former SFI cadres, that led the media to this pseudo-left critique of the programme! What a cheek to rubbish people who had been in SFI, who had suffered much and at least some of whom had faced lathis, knives and even bullets, who had taken up work in the media instead of the much coveted full-time political work and tried to do their job of reportong of the goings on in the corridors of power!

I do not know whether this wonderful insight comes from Chomsky original or is a contribution from our neo-Chomskys to the critique of media in 21st century. I must admit, as a former SFI cadre, it left me gasping for breath as I too happen to be a critic of left politics now...!

I was struck by a phrase from Damodar on the contemporary media practice of media criticism familiar to us. He described it as third degree methods of criticism.

Most people would laugh it off as an exaggeration but those who are familiar with the way media-persons are forced to work these days in Kerala would know this aptly describes the reality that confronts us today. There is an atmosphere of latent violence in the every day life of a media-person and he/she has to face crude violence or abuses and threats almost on a day to day basis. Often they erupt into an act of physical violence on the person who represents the media in the field and in most cases he/she works fully aware of the threats to his/her safety. This is no exaggeration: ask any media person- whether male or female- and they would tell you how unsafe the profession has become in the most literate Kerala society. Very few of these incidents, which take the form of direct physical attacks, are reported in the media and most others like threats and abuses are hushed up or silently borne for fear of provoking further attacks or threats. This is a contemporary reality.

Some of these are so ugly and some really comic: When I watched the video of the threat to Vidhu Vincent, a female reporter, from a group of Church believers, I was horrified because the ugliness of mob violence on a feeble female was so evident in all its details. She later left the profession.

When I heard about a friend in Indian Express who was bashed up at a bus stop in Thalassery, I asked him what happened. It was a rally of a big political party there and the buses were all stranded in the roads and he said something to the person next to him about the way they were persecuting the public. Men from the jatha overheard and he was pulled out of the bus and bashed up. He refused to complain because he was afraid next day he would face a fresh bout of violence.

My worst days as a journalist were when I worked with a television channel and I remember with horror the continuous harassment, abuses and threats I faced. They were friendly fire, as they say coming from guys who had an ownership role in it! Some of the people who were abusive were men of some senior positions and one of them today happens to be a member of Parliament.

But the saddest part is not physical violence or continuous threats. It is the loss of means of livelihood which could completely paralyze a person. Most camera-persons are forced to buy their own equipment in small organizations and when they are attacked, the loss is huge. Once when I worked as president of the Kozhikode unit of KUWJ, there was an attack and around a dozen people were injured but when I went to the hospital to see them, the major complaint was not about the injuries or pain, but about the loss of equipment like cameras and lenses and there was no way they could get that back in shape.

Now what I suggest is that an atmosphere of fascist tendencies is fast growing in Kerala and politicians and local mafias are the main culprits. It is a fearsome thing that such attacks are now getting an official stamp as even senior politicians do not care when media people are attacked.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Breaking Race Barriers: The life and Times of George V McLaughlin

He was New York police commissioner, banker and civil society leader. He also broke race barriers in police and baseball. A tribute to George V McLaughlin who died 50 years ago on December 7, 1967.

Around Christmas in 1925, when George Vincent McLaughlin was offered the post of New York police commissioner by mayor Jimmy Walker, he was not sure whether to accept. He had no police background, and as the Brooklyn Eagle, his borough’s newspaper, said his contacts with the police until then were limited to an occasional chat with the patrolman or the traffic cop.  

So he replied to the mayor, refusing to accept the post described by the New York Times as the most difficult in the city administration. But a few days later, on January 1, 1926, he was there at the steps of the City Hall as Walker announced the appointment of his new police commissioner.  The mayor said McLaughlin, who was 38 then, had agreed to accept the post, spurning offers he had from the private sector to take up the task of fighting crooks and maintaining order in the sprawling city of five million.

So what changed his mind? Reporters on police beat who raised this question never got a direct answer. “My daughter Kathleen wanted me to take it up,” he told Silas Bent of New  York Times. Most friends had advised him not to accept, no one had been successful in the position. It was a  swamp that could swallow even the toughest and why risk one’s career there? He was successful in his position as Banking Superintendent in New York state.

But little Kathleen was only two and a half years old and she thought her six-foot, 200-pound father could fight all the crooks in the city with his big hands. And that would be fun. But Jeanne, her sister who was six, was not sure and so said nothing. So was their mother Hazel K Sullivan, who worked in the banking department.

It appears the real force behind his decision was New York governor Alfred E Smith. McLaughlin, by this time, was very close to Smith and Walker had requested Smith to persuade him. Smith was a popular figure and had built up a formidable name as a reformer. He was first elected governor in 1918 and was responsible for a number of reforms that put the interests of common people at the center, in that Gilded Age. Smith came up from the working classes and he prided in his subaltern background. He had famously claimed he received his highest degrees from the university of Fulton, meaning the Fulton fish market where he once worked as an assistant. When Smith came to power, McLaughlin was a banking examiner, after working for years at Brooklyn’s North Side  Bank even as he studied during the night to get his degrees in law and accounting. Smith made him superintendent of banks, a position in which McLaughlin excelled. This took him closer to the governor, and soon he was in the governor’s inner circle. Another person in that Albany circle was Robert Moses. During the next 40 years, McLaughlin and Moses would work together in many projects that involved the city’s development.  

Many thought McLaughlin was a Tammany recruit and Smith’s man in the Walker administration. His name was first mentioned to Walker by a journalist, George Van Slyke, who used to know him at Albany. The New Yorker thought his appointment was a ploy to present a Tammany administration in respectable attire. In a profile on the new police chief, tilted Tammany in Modern Clothes, New Yorker’s Oliver Garrett described McLaughlin “honest, direct, forceful, but lacking finesse” and predicted he “will need all his guts” to survive in the new job.

But, it soon turned out, McLaughlin was his own man. The Mayor had assured him a free hand and Tammany, for the time being, kept itself aloof. The New York City in the 1920s was a burgeoning place: its boroughs were teeming with millions and every week thousands of migrants came to its shore, from every part of the world. It was a city of opportunities, for the good,the bad and the ugly. Crooks and bootleggers took over the streets at nightfall. Holdups and murders were aplenty. In those Prohibition days, speakeasies and gambling dens thrived with political backing and the police were corrupt.  

Corruption was all pervasive; it spread from the lowly patrolman to the highest levels of administration. Richard Enright, his predecessor who held office for eight years, faced continuous interference from the City Hall under John F Hylan. Many files were missing from the headquarters and among them the ones relating to collection of funds for police welfare activities from wealthy New Yorkers. It was found much of this amount had disappeared.

Police badges were available for those who could pay and that helped them flout the rules. The system of honorary police officers was used by the rich and powerful to don their cars with plaques announcing their position as honorary deputy commissioners. During the previous regime, there were many such dignitaries who enjoyed the privileges of a high ranking officer, with no responsibilities. McLaughlin cancelled all honorary positions and ordered return of the plaques to the department.  

The special squads set up to fight vices like gambling and enforce Volstead Act that prohibited sale of liquor was another issue. They were a force to themselves and answerable only to the commissioner. Some of them were corrupt and their antics notorious. He ordered the special squads disbanded and asked the men to report for duty at police stations.

And that was what the city needed. The city police had around 14,000 men on its rolls but there was an acute shortage of patrolmen on the streets. Within five months of taking charge, McLaughlin increased the number of patrolmen on duty by 1600 men cutting down on staff “deployed in numerous soft berths and clerical positions,” the NYT reported.   

The staff morale was low. Merit was ignored and racial prejudices rampant. Promotions were at the whim of top officials whose arms were twisted by politicians. McLaughlin made the system more open making himself accessible to his staff. The day New York Times reporter James Young went to  see him at work, his first visitor was an officer called Ryan who was denied his promotion for long. McLaughlin told him, “I am proud of you, Ryan. That was a fine piece of work in Brooklyn. I liked the way you tackled those fellows...And from today, you are a third grade detective, Ryan. And good luck to you.”

Samuel Battle was a young man from Harlem, the first black person to be appointed to the New York police in 1911. His promotion had been held up. McLaughlin promoted him as sergeant in 1926, soon after he took charge. McLaughlin, announcing his promotion, told Battle that he had received anonymous letters against him but “I thought they belonged to the waste bin.”  

There were many such officers who found their work recognised and promotions granted during McLaughlin’s time. Among them was Lewis Joseph Valentine, an officer who served as police commissioner during mayor LaGuardia’s term in office.  

McLaughlin was meticulous and punctual. He reached his office at 240 Centre Street, before nine and received visitors; sorted out grievances and complaints before moving onto his other duties. He tried to be with his men, when tough actions were called for. He was courteous, and matter of fact. He never brooked interference in his work. That was a complete break from past practices, when politicians minted money with a hand in the city administration’s every posting, transfer and promotion.

He refused to entertain politicians who came seeking favors. Such toughness caused tension and unpleasant encounters. One such incident involved mayor Walker and a Lower East Side politician Edward Ahearn. Eddie’s problem was simple and genuine: Shopkeepers in Yiddish neighbourhoods had trouble with the city’s Blue law that insisted shops remain shut on Sundays. But most Jews kept their shops closed on Saturday and remained active on Sunday. If a patrolman came, they could be handled with a bribe or some influence peddling. But when McLaughlin came, this did not work and shoppers complained to Eddie Ahearn, Democratic leader in the locality and a Tammany man. Eddie went to meet the mayor to complain.

But Walker would not listen. He said McLaughlin was not taking orders from the City Hall and there was nothing he could do to help Eddie. Exasperated, Eddie asked why did he remain mayor then. Walker, eager to shift the blame on Al Smith, said, “Look, Al Smith put McLaughlin here. Let Al Smith pull him out.”

The story is that raging with anger, Eddie rose from the chair, spat on the mayor’s face in contempt, and stormed out, inaugurating a period of bitterness and cold war between the two that lasted many years.

McLaughlin had an eye for numbers and at the end  of his first year he came up with statistics about the crime situation in the city, claiming good progress. He gave a report to the mayor in February 1927 which said: During the past year, the assault and robbery cases, “the class of crime most feared by society,” were fewer by 20.9 percent compared to the previous year. The number of burglaries was the lowest in the past ten years, showing a reduction of 18 percent. There was a decrease of 15 per cent in grand larceny and six percent in homicides.  But his achievements towards the last quarter of the year were striking: there was as much as 40 per cent drop in serious crimes showing the growing effectiveness of his methods.  

His achievements were praised all round but his methods resented by men in power who were used to a pliable police force. In enforcing the law, McLaughlin was uncompromising and that put him in conflict with some Tammany bigwigs. Among them was Brooklyn Democratic leader and alderman Peter J McGuinness.

Pete was a colorful politician in Brooklyn, known as as the king of Greenpoint. Like Al Smith, he had working class origins and came up in public life through hard work. He was a prominent alderman and was responsible for many improvements in public amenities. Once he came up with a bill that sought to ban women smoking in public places. In the prohibition era  New York, politicians and policemen were the keepers of public morality, and once news about the new bill became known, cops started rounding up women having a leisurely smoke, though the bill had never been made into a law.

Pete was the man who ran the Democratic club at Greenpoint and it was rumored to be a place for gambling. McLaughlin’s special team barged into the club one evening, arrested Pete and a few others and seized a big amount of money.

It was a sensational raid, and Tammany Hall, which had kept out of police affairs until then, decided to step in. A team of Tammany leaders went to meet mayor Walker. It was never disclosed what transpired, but on March 29, 1927, McLaughlin announced  his resignation, after 15 months at the helm of New York police department. He said he was leaving to take up an offer at Mackay’s cable company. He handed over charge to his successor Joseph A  Warren, a  law partner and friend of Walker, a few days later.  

Warren lasted only eight months, as the mayor asked him to quit following the sharp spike in crime rates in his first three months itself in comparison to the time McLaughlin was in charge. In fact, NYT was being prescient when it wrote: “George V McLaughlin, in the opinion of many close observers, has practically remade the police department during the year and three months he has been in  office and has made a record for efficiency in administration that his successor will find it hard to equal.”  

Four years later, following allegations of corruption against Walker administration, governor F D Roosevelt ordered an inquiry, and former judge Samuel Seabury was made the Hofstadter commission’s counsel. Seabury was a stern and brilliant lawyer from a family of generations of brilliant jurists. When reporters asked Walker about the Seabury enquiries, the mayor  quipped, “Life is full of Seaburies...” At the end of the Hofstadter inquiry, Walker was forced to quit and board a ship to Europe, for a vacation that lasted years, in order to avoid the long arm of law catching up with him.

McLaughlin was one of the witnesses who testified at the inquiry. Asked about his relations with the mayor, the former police chief said, “If non interference was the best way of cooperation,” he had received it in full from Walker. He aso revealed the raid on McGuinness’ Greenpoint club was not an accident--he said he had told the Brooklyn Democratic leader John McCooey about what went on behind the closed doors there. His warning was relayed to the club, but McGuinness ignored it. Then there was no option but to go on with a raid, which he did.

It was in this atmosphere of rampant corruption revealed by the Hofstadter inquiry that the 1933 mayor elections were held. The Depression was at its peak, 25 per cent of the working people unemployed. The reform movement was strong and its political arm, the Fusion party, was led by judge Seabury. In their search for a strong and credible candidate, McLaughlin was a choice, but he refused. Robert Moses was another, but Seabury was opposed to him and that led them to settle on F H LaGuardia, who always wanted the ticket.

The Democratic candidate was Tammany’s nominee John O’Brien, and it was thought it would be a straight fight. But then a third candidate appeared,  Joseph V McKee. McKee was put up by a new entity called Recovery party and one of its leaders was McLaughlin, who served as chairman of the campaign committee. McKee’s last minute entry was interpreted as a strategic move by President Roosevelt. But in the end, LaGuardia won and McKee came second.

Again in 1936, McLaughlin was in the headlines, as a Democratic heavyweight who ‘took a walk’ to the rival camp. FDR was seeking reelection and Al Smith, who had become so bitter with the President, decided to support his Republican rival Alf Landon, governor of Kansas. In Brooklyn McLaughlin was one of the Smith loyalists who followed him to the Republican camp with disastrous results. In this race, FDR returned to power with a landslide victory. Ever since, McLaughlin kept himself away from active party politics.             

In business and social life, he remained a leading figure. He had left Mackays in less than a year, and moved back to banking in 1930. For the next two decades he was president of Brooklyn Trust Company, a prominent Brooklyn bank. The Brooklyn Trust was in charge of the finances of Brooklyn Dodgers, a great team with great players and a great fan following. Among its fans  was Ernest Hemingway. Red Barber, veteran commentator who used to broadcast Dodgers and New York Yankee games, remembered how the writer used to hang around the team. He wrote in NYT in a memoir: “I was around Hemingway casually in 1941 when Larry MacPhail took the Brooklyn Dodgers to Havana for spring training... He was fascinated by all those mighty men of muscles, the ballplayers. He used to leave his finca and hang around the Dodgers in the lobby of the National Hotel. Then he took some of them to shoot pigeons. Several times he had some of them at his finca.”  

The Dodgers were legendary, but their finances were in a mess. The team was deeply in red, its telephone lines at the 215 Montague Street headquarters had been cut and the two families that held its shares the Ebbets and McKeevers were squabbling and the Ebbets Field, where its games were played, was in ruins. There was urgent need to get things under control. McLaughlin was not only the man who controlled the purse strings, he was also trustee for the families that owned the team. He led the negotiations that persuaded Larry MacPhail, who used to run Cincinnati Reds, to take over the Dodgers as general manager. Larry came with plans for the revival of the team’s fortunes, the only hitch being lack of money.  

Larry went to meet McLaughlin at his bank’s headquarters at Brooklyn Heights. McLaughlin conducted his business affairs from its second story office and his social affairs from room 40 at Hotel Bossert. Harold Harris of Brooklyn Eagle wrote about this private gathering as the most exclusive luncheon club in the borough. “Nothing is ever written about this place where banker George V McLaughlin, known to his intimates as George the Fifth, rules over a table of political hierarchy, ” he wrote.

Larry laid out his plans and asked McLaughlin for $ 200,000. The year was 1937, a time when the economy was still reeling under the effects of Depression, and the team owed the bank $700,000. Besides, the Ebbets and McKeever heirs owed money to the bank as they had taken loans against the shares as collateral. Sinking more money into the team was not a sober proposition, but as a leading citizen of Brooklyn, McLaughlin could not let the team go under. He took the plunge.

Larry did wonders with the Dodgers, turning it around in a short while. When he left in 1942 to fight the war, the team’s finances were in better shape, part of its debts cleared, and it had a deposit of $150,000 in the bank. When Dodgers won the pennant there was much excitement in the borough, MacPhail hailed for his brilliant achievements. But one enthusiast wrote to the Brooklyn Eagle that “little mention is made of the one man who, perhaps more than any other, deserves the kudos for bringing the pennant to Brooklyn. I refer to George V McLaughlin, banker extraordinary...” the writer said, pointing out that it was McLaughlin who spotted the one guy [MacPhail] that Brooklyn needed and then let him dip into the till to his heart’s content. “Where will you to find a banker who would have the good sense, as well as the civic consciousness” to do so, he asked.  

Then came Branch Rickey to lead the Dodgers. The war was raging all over the world, but Rickey knew it would end sooner or later. When it ended the boys would be back home and they would look forward to good entertainment. It called for scouting for good players and he wanted to look afield for new talent. He thought the racial barriers must be broken to bring in great players kept out of the national league. Bringing in black players who until then played in the Negro league would also bring in the large number of black youngsters to the stadium and that would mean a great new source of revenue.  

But breaking the color barrier was not easy. Here again it was McLaughlin who gave him sober advice and encouragement. This is how Jimmy Breslin in his biography of Branch Rickey describes the moment when Rickey broached his idea with McLaughlin: “McLaughlin had an old style of reasoning that came from years in police stations and bank negotiations. ‘If you want to do this to get a beat on the other teams and make some money, then let’s do it’, he told Rickey. ‘But if you want to do this for some social change, forget it. We want to win and make money... If this doesn’t work for money, you’re sunk.”

McLaughlin knew how enormously important was this decision. It meant taking on the brick walls of racial prejudices. It would bring in a huge backlash. But then, he was a businessman to the core and he reasoned there was no argument that would succeed like a solid business argument. He was not prejudiced on racial lines and had proved his willingness to honor merit twenty years earlier when he promoted Samuel Battle. Now he did the same thing standing behind Branch Rickey as he made history signing up Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers.

That was in 1947.Ten years later, Brooklyn lost Dodgers when Walter O’Malley took the team to Los Angeles. It was McLaughlin who had made O’Malley part of the triumvirate he had installed to run the club when the heirs of the old owners sold out. The others who held shares were Branch Rickey and John L Smith, president of the Pfizer company. After the death of Smith, differences between Rickey and O’Malley came to a head and finally O’Malley took over the team buying out Rickey’s shares.

O’Malley, son of an old friend of McLaughlin’s in Bronx, was a protege of the banker from the days he was hired to look after the foreclosure business of the bank in the 30s. Later, McLaughlin put him in charge of the Dodgers’ finances. It was from here O’Malley made his way up to the ownership of the franchise.

O'Malley wanted a new ballpark, as he felt the Ebbets Fields was no longer sufficient to hold the rising number of spectators or park their cars. “Ebbets Fields was built in the trolley car era.There are no trolleys to speak of today but there are automobiles and ..parkways,” he wrote to McLaughlin and park commissioner Robert Moses in 1953, asking for a new ballpark to be built at Fort Greene were slums had been cleared for new developments.

Moses refused point blank. He wrote back: “...our slum clearance committee cannot be be used to encourage speculation in baseball enterprises. You are, of course, the best judge as to whether in fact a new Dodger stadium would be anything but a white elephant...” O'Malley made an appeal to McLaughlin, Moses’ long time colleague, but he could do nothing to help.    

When Walter O’Malley announced his plans to take Dodgers to the west coast, McLaughlin made a last ditch effort to keep the franchise in the city. He addressed a press conference at Waldorf-Astoria, with a plan drawn up after consultations with Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. It accepted the need for a new ballpark, and he thought the ideal spot would be Flushing Meadows in Queens. This could be built at public expense, and he expected to persuade either Dodgers or Giants, who were also negotiating a move to the other coast, to remain in the city. In case it fails, he proposed a a new team in which the players would have a share of the profits and the team would be run by a non profit corporation. Mayor Robert Wagner was in favour of it, parks commissioner Moses was supportive and New York Times wrote that this appears to be the only way for the city keep its franchise. But in a few weeks both the Giants and Dodgers had left the city.  

The departure of Dodgers was an acutely felt personal loss for most Brooklynites. For McLaughlin it was a deeply felt loss. For three decades, he had run the team, his opinion was vital in any decision that counted in its affairs. He had brought in O'Malley to the board as his personal choice and helped him with money to purchase his initial shares in the team. O'Malley was close to him, and often described as his adopted son taking care of his personal affairs and driving him home in those evenings he imbibed prodigious amounts of the spirits at the numerous dinner parties he had to attend. He could never forgive O'Malley for what he did and never spoke to him in later years.

McLaughlin's decades long association with Robert Moses was another matter that received much public attention. Robert Caro, in his biography of Moses, The Power Broker, has said McLaughlin as vice chairman of Triborough Bridge Authority played second fiddle to him, allowing him to run the authority as a personal fiefdom. He hints it was business interests that motivated McLaughlin who had stakes in the Equitable Life Assurance Society which had dealings with the authority.

But this does not seem to be fair criticism. McLaughlin was generally supportive of the decisions Moses made, and many of them controversial, but he had very little choice. Moses always had the power of public opinion on his side. Even President Roosevelt had to beat a retreat when he made an attempt to remove Moses from the authority in 1936. Secondly, McLaughlin was enthusiastic about the kind of public works that changed the face of New York. But still, he firmly opposed the move Moses made to shift $ 6 million of authority money to the loss-making New York World Fair in 1963. He resigned from the fair committee and issued a public statement denouncing Moses.

Two years later his term at the authority came to an end, after 31 years serving under various administrations. He was already 78. He had left his career at banking industry over a decade earlier retiring as chairman of Manufacturers Trust Company, with which his Brooklyn Trust Company had merged in 1950. But he continued on its board, and was associated with a large number of business concerns and social and charitable organisations. Among them were Fordham and St John's universities, Equitable Life Assurance Society and Consolidated Edison Company.

McLaughlin was a public person all his life. He never minced his words nor retracted from his positions. During the Depression, he called for changes in the way banks and businesses operated, in the New Deal days he opposed profligate spending and when the war broke out, he was a leading figure in civilian efforts to face the difficulties. He cared for the youth who went to fight in the war and ensured every Brooklyn boy who came back home did receive a great welcome and a ticket at Ebbets Fields where the Dodgers played. He loved sports and instituted the McLaughlin trophy for basketball. As a banker he was president of the New York Bankers Association for one term and helped formulate its policies in the difficult years of Depression and bank collapses.

He loved good food and good drinks and was a towering presence in any gathering, that earned him the epithet George the Fifth among friends. He loved to play handball and was known to be a skillful player even in his old days. In fact on the day of his death, December 7, 1967, he had enjoyed a round of the game and after lunch with his friends at the Athletic Club, had come home at 610, Park Avenue, when he had an heart attack. He rang up his daughter Kay Jeffords living three blocks away and told her about it, adding “this seems to be the last”, according to a family member. Half an hour later when she arrived, he was already dead. He was 80.

A requiem mass service was held at the St Vincent Ferrer Church, Lexington Avenue, the next day and his body was laid to rest at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery, Westchester, with the NYPD band playing the farewell tune to its old chief.

Image courtesy: Police commissioner McLaughlin with officer Ryan, New York Times, 7 February, 1926.

(This story is dedicated to Elizabeth D. Jeffords who has spent 13 years in India, trying to improve the lives of scores of children, through education and empowerment. She first told me about George V.McLaughlin, her grandfather.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Remembering Henry Brownrigg

HENRY Brownrigg died at his London home on December 22, 2016, as he was trying to get  into a car to go to his sister’s home for Christmas. As his nephew Christopher Lindsay,who held his hand at the time, told me the next day, his heart just stopped ticking and in another moment he was gone. This year-end trip to his only sister’s place was quite routine for him: Henry once told me his sister’s home used to eat money all the year round and then at the end of the year, it came alive as all the family members came together to celebrate Christmas and New Year.

He was ailing for some time, with a liver disease and a few weeks ahead of his demise he had undergone a surgery and came back home cheerfully, and in the next few weeks he spent much time reading and reviewing a book on politics and economy that I was writing. His comments were extensive and in depth that I think the ideas he had set out in those emails might be enough for another book on the subject.

Henry was highly knowledgeable, helpful to others, and he remained optimistic and witty about life even in the trying times. He was a liberal, a supporter of British Labour Party, and a democrat who remained steadfast  in his commitment to an open society. He responded to the developments in the world around him in a passionate way and I remember the night of the Brexit vote he kept himself awake late into the night and as the outcome became clear his  immediate reaction came in three words: ‘Oh, my God...!’ He was extremely well read, had travelled all over the world and had personal contacts with people in many continents. He told me a few weeks before his death that he was working on a few projects including a coffee table book on his collection of photographs of Kerala churches, a research project on some aspects of the Geniza records even as he was reading a few books that caught his fancy.

He never took his scholarship and academic brilliance seriously, though he had written scholarly articles on Kerala history in the South Indian Journal of History that came out from Kerala University in Trivandrum and also gave lectures at places like the University of Pennsylvania on topics of his life long interest. He was a highly rated expert on history and that was one reason why he was a guest at the 70th anniversary memorial service on the D-Day at Normandy  in France, a battle in which his father had served as a captain of a battleship of the Royal Navy.  

I became friends with Henry almost a decade ago when I was working on the European tombs and other heritages on the Malabar coast that date back to many centuries. He was at the time Kerala representative for the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA) and he sent me lots of material  that he had gathered. His deep contacts in all these places were unbelievable--once I was wondering how to locate a small gravestone of a British soldier who had drowned to death in river Chaliyar in the interior of Nilambur forest early in 20th century and then he told me he had been there and had all the details of the gravestone.

It was a pleasure to work with Henry on matters of mutual interest, and luckily we had quite a lot of common interests. He had toured Kerala criss cross for many decades and had visited and photographed many temples, churches and mosques over the years. This way, he was a chronicler of the changing times and cultural practices in Kerala landscape. Most of these old places of worship, many of them built side by side in a display of the traditional camaraderie among the region’s various faiths, had quite a lot of common features from an architectural point of view. Often they were built by the same architects or thatchans who served the local kings who had Muslims, Christians, Jews and caste Hindus as his prominent subjects. He had taken many photographs of Christian and Muslim places of worship that were remarkably similar to the Hindu temples in a wonderful display of this cultural symbiosis that was the hallmark of Kerala history for a long time. (See accompanying photographs of two mosques in Malabar with traditional Hindu temple features--from Henry's collection.) Now that many of these older places of worship are being pulled down, and modern monstrosities taking their place, Henry’s own work might be one of the staunch reminders of this great Malayali heritage, now sadly being lost to our own collective memory in an age of deliberate cultural exclusion and religious bigotry.

I think Henry was aware of this aspect of his work and he acutely felt the significance of cultural links between peoples and nations. In India he had seen how communal politics could play havoc in a society known for its peaceful ways. A week before his collapse at his home on November 15 which took him to a hospital for three weeks, Henry wrote to me as follows, when he was reading a history of Calicut  by historian Dr MGS Narayanan:

R.[a mutual friend] certainly agrees that Narayanan, though still probably the most prominent historian of Kerala, has moved to the right and is giving de facto support to the BJP.  So I started reading the book with a critical eye, and found it less biased than I had feared. I agree with you that he underplays the Christian role, but arguably Christianity was the nemesis of Calicut which never fully recovered from Portuguese suppression of Arab trade and the consequent rise of Cochin. MGS accepts the early role of Buddhism and Jainism - for instance that the Thiruvannur Temple was adapted from Jainism to Saivism in the C11th, as is reflected in the apsidal form of its srikovil. He is also quite good on the Kuttichira mosques, debunking the suggestion that their architectural similarity to temples means that they might be Malayali versions of the Babri Masjid. And he goes out of his way to make the point that the strong Islamic presence in Calicut can be attributed not just to the Cheramen Perumal legend but certainly to the mutual benefit of of international trade. So Hindu-Muslim Calicut was a prototype for a tolerant inclusive India.  Surely this is not the sort of message which the BJP is anxious to hear.”

This note alone is sufficient to show that Henry was a great friend of Kerala and also of India and acutely aware of its secular historical and cultural roots. His love affair with this country started in the mid-seventies when he first came here as a representative of the Anglo-American Gold Company which used to own many gold mines in various parts of the world. It was the days after the Emergency in India and Morarji Desai was the prime minister. Henry used to tell stories about the gold love in India and the illicit trade that became hectic during those days of Gold Control Act. He once took an adventurous trip in Dubai, going blindfolded to a dhow that was involved in smuggling of the precious metal to India. He was furious about a London newspaper which had promised to publish his experiences and instead went to town with the story attributed to someone else in their desk. His article published in 1982  in the company journal Optima was an excellent piece of writing on gold in India--its role in the country’s ancient culture and history, the legends connected with the yellow metal and the peculiar aspects of trading in gold in the small shops in Rajasthan and the big malls in Mumbai.

Henry came from an upper class family in UK -- his father retired as an admiral in Royal Navy and then served as chairman of an independent television channel. After public school, Henry went to Oxford where he was an office-bearer of the Oxford Union in the early sixties. He told me about the evening they hosted Malcolm X, the revolutionary black leader from the US, at Oxford Union debate and the dinner they had together. It was one of the last public appearances of Malcolm X as a few days later he was shot dead back home. Henry had kept a photograph of the Oxford Union leaders with Malcolm X and among them was writer Tariq Ali, who remained a life long friend of Henry, like many others from every part of the world.

Henry refused to write down his own thoughts but his letters and emails that he fondly wrote out on a regular basis are so rich in ideas and images that bring out the intellectual brilliance of this most affable of human beings who will be missed by all those who knew him.