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.)


Unknown said...

Jayasankar writes from Switzerland:

The below struck me as on the dot.

“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.”

May is not going to be replaced by Corbyn. There is no new ideation there (not just Corbyn's fault, is the same with all these hyped new left movements - Americans now call their's "democratic socialism" as if changing the order of a phrase is an idea).It will most probably be a 'nutter'(as the English would say) like Boris Johnson or worst an UKIP/EDL semi-fascist type. (There is a Sangh Parivar parallel there - May (Vajpayee) to externally hosted Togadia (Nigel Farage) - they are yet to find their Amit Shah tho.

Down with a flu, I read this blog in the middle of rereading ' The Kraus Project' (heavily recommended) which parallels Brownringg's skepticism of the trajectories of the day to that of the last century.

Kraus points to the parallel rise of mass industrialization and mass media and that of fascism. He implies direct causation to the cultural degradation by mass media which is contestable but is still an interesting parallel for today with the digital economy and digital+social media and the seemingly inexorable rise of the totally detestable. (Something like WhatsApp that was hacked together hardly a decade ago to remove SMS charges - look at its all pervasive impact on billions of people now...)

A key factor for Kraus was that technology and modernization were diminishing the space that the imagination needed to thrive. Once the popular imagination has atrophied, the likelihood that technology will be misused hardens into a certainty.When the general catastrophe then arrived, in the form of the First World War, Kraus believed that was caused in large part by a failure of the Austrian imagination, which wasn’t strong to begin with, and which had been fatally enfeebled by the mass press, at a moment of unparalleled technological might. Not long after the war began, Kraus claimed that the very signature of our time is the threat our lack of imagination has come to pose: ‘in this time in which what people could no longer imagine is precisely what happens, and in which what they can no longer imagine has to happen, and if they could have imagined it, it wouldn’t have happened…’ “ Kraus exhorted his readers to think as hard as they could about their linguistic options. Doing so was, he believed, the best practice for ethical decision making. Because our deliberating over language usually takes place with neither the threat of punishment nor the prospect of gain hanging over it, it can teach us, in a uniquely unconstrained way, to hesitate, to have ‘scruples,’ and to be sensitive to nuance and thus to particularity. There was a time when these ideas resonated; more even than Kraus’s claims about journalism and the Great War, they’re what prompted critics to credit him with seeing, as one of them put it, ‘the connection between mistreated words and mistreated bodies.’

Continues in the next...

Unknown said...

Continues from earlier comment post:

Der Weg der neuern Bildung geht:
Von Humanität,
Durch Nationalität,
Zur Bestialität.

(The road of modern education leads: From humanity, Through nationality, To barbarity.)

I’d like to unpack this sentence fragment further, since, of all of Kraus’s lines, it’s probably the one that has meant the most to me. An “infernal machine” is an explosive or destructive device constructed to deliberately cause harm; the German term, Teufelswerk (literally “devil’s work”), sharpens the Krausian paradox of the phrase “of humanity.” Kraus in this passage is evoking the Sorcerer’s Apprentice—the unintended unleashing of supernaturally destructive consequences. Although he’s talking about the modern newspaper, his critique applies, if anything, even better to contemporary techno-consumerism. For Kraus, the infernal thing about newspapers was their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with a relentless and ingenious pursuit of profit and power. With techno-consumerism, a humanist rhetoric of “empowerment” and “creativity” and “freedom” and “connection” and “democracy” abets the frank monopoly of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslaving and addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.

Best regards,

Unknown said...

Michael Stevenage writes from UK:

It is very interesting though his left of centre politics are not my cup of tea.

Have you thought about writing a biography about him and include the high political dramas and if I may say so the melodramas of the late 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. There will be a lot of material about this period. He is right about Corbyn though and I agree he will never be elected as Prime Minister of the UK. In 1969 I was studying at a local college and even there all the talk was of a socialist “uprising”. Sadly I never made it to University as I had to go out to work to support my family.

Well, as you are aware nothing ever happened and the governments of those periods lurched from one economic crisis to another the pinnacle of foolishness being that disastrous Maastricht Treaty of 1992 that John Major signed us up to. On reflection most UK citizens were unaware of the consequences of that treaty and I am sure if they had known they would never have agreed to its premise. By the way my father once told me that there would never be a revolution in the UK as people were more interested in their shops and homes/ “castles”.

By the way It is crunch time today for Mrs May in respect of the Draft EU Withdrawal Treaty (500 pages). A cabinet meeting is now in progress and should finish around 17:00 UK time. Personally I think it is a great betrayal ( and her own words) of the people who voted to leave the EU, I being one as it ties us to a Customs Union for the time being. It’s the Irish question again. One calls to mind that well-worn phrase of the “Tail wagging the dog”.

Unknown said...

S Sircar writes on the British Raj India list:

It is the Nilgiri Hills Christian Memorials and the Malabar Christian Memorials on that page that are an added delight, in a world in which it looks as if all traces of these things are destined for destruction, and not solely by neglect, either (see the article itself).

I wish there were a consolidated bibliography of items such as these.

A few days ago, the BBC had an article on the grave of the author of "Pale Hands I Loved beside the Shalimar" somewhere in an overgrown churchyard in Madras-Chennai, with never a suggestion that money could be sent to BACSA to clear that churchyard up.

Sanjay Sircar

Unknown said...

Christopher Penn of BACSA writes from UK:

Dear Chekkutty,

Thank you so much for this fascinating blog. Some of it I already knew, but there was much that I did not.

Henry and I used to meet occasionally in his London club, The Travellers, which was another place where he felt at home. I am not a member myself but many of my friends are and I would typify them as open-minded and citizens of the world like him; while, as always in a club, there are also some stuffy elements.

I look forward to reading part 2.

I am copying Henry’s niece Victoria who is now doing valuable work for BACSA on our website.

With best wishes,


Unknown said...

Christopher Lindsay writes from UK:

Dear Chekkutty,

It is such a thrill for me to read what you have drawn together. I have read some of Tony's stuff and heard a few anecdotes, but his political life and the ebb and flow of his allegiances were not part of the "family compartment" in Henry's discretely compartmentalised life. This is a great pity because several of us in his family could have engaged with pleasure, despite not being children of the ideals of the 60s. Only his sister was "right of Ghenghis Khan" which so infuriated him, as he saw her views to be received and not in the least considered, that politics was kept entirely outside the family discourse.

I asked him two or three times about the Malcolm X debate, but you won far more from him with your e-mail correspondence. He had not even owned up to the dinner story when reminiscing with me, so thank you again for adding these extra dimensions.

I share your sense that in 2016 we crossed some dreadful watershed. We enter a world in which digital media serves to re-enforce our existing prejudices and deny balanced reporting to generalist readers.

In the financial world companies now meet less with investors and give less information about their activities, because they fear being sued in case they divulge some info that is later considered to be of financial significance "inside info". Men fear to be outspoke, or robust in their views, when in the presence of women in case they let slip a guarded remark. In UK we have all heard of members of the British Jewish and Polish community who say they can not help feeling/imagining a growing hostility and sense that they are unwelcome in the country. it seem it only takes a pinch something nasty to spoil the soup.

My world is that of investment, and especially thinking how pension funds should invest to preserve and grow the capital of their members so there is enough to look after them in old age. But even the financial press is becoming harder access. The Financial Times no longer publishes a daily commodity report or bond report. The screens of Mayor Bloomberg which are universal on City desk and provide access to all manner of financial market data and news, cost £8,000-10,000 pa to rent and so even top financiers share one between two. Previously you could find out about the shipping world by buying a copy of Lloyd's List and now it must be subscribed to on line. Even for the rich capitalists access to information is getting more difficult and that data is coming from a single source, homogenised. This is a really bad, unhelpful development, which in my areas of expertise seems to be leading to "groupthink" and greater polarisation of views.

It was strange that at the Centenary Celebrations of the end of WWI which were held at Compiegne and Paris and organised by Macron there were no members of the British Government or the Royal Family. At one event we saw Merkel and Macron sobbing in each others arms with Merkel laying her head on Macron's shoulder, at the great Review Macron had sixty world leaders including Trump and Putin, who gave Trump a cheeky thumbs up, but no British. I can't imagine that Britain refused to attend. I can't imagine that Brexit is more important than NATO or WWI. Every family in Britain, across Europe and also the Dominions were touched by the horror of that war and had the opportunity to ask themselves if the outcome was worth the sacrifice. So in this increasingly polarised world is definitely being made to feel out of Europe, punished by the EU for daring to resist political union, and also feel a sense that history is being denied and re-scripted without Britain.

Yes. I would love to hear Henry's views opal of this.

Best wishes for now,