Like Gerry Hassan
, I remember from primary school those maps with the pink British bits spread around the globe. As is the case with most empires, the blessings to the colonised nations and to the coloniser were a mixture of the beneficial, the questionable and the downright appalling.
In the early 1970s, I spent two years as a volunteer teacher at a teacher training college in Cameroon, an African country which had just recently gained its independence, mostly from France, but in the case of West Cameroon from the UK. West Cameroon had also voted in a referendum to join with its francophone neighbour, East Cameroon, rather than remaining a small remote division of newly independent Nigeria.
Early in my stay, an older African colleague proudly showed me the college library, a single musty room which contained a number of books – mostly British classics, plus some maths and science, as well as new African writing in French and English. On the wall was one of 'those' world maps and in a prominent position on another wall hung a portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, with beside it a portrait of Cameroon's President Ahidjo. A Muslim, he was the new president of a country that contains Christian and Muslim populations in almost equal proportion, and one which inherited both the French and British colonial traditions. It was later (1995) to become a member of both the Commonwealth and the Francophonie.
As we stood looking at these apparently clashing symbols of different cultures, my colleague uttered words almost identical to those of Boris Johnson, as referenced by Gerry Hassan, praising what he saw as Cameroon's inheritance from Britain – free speech and democracy.
Gerry Hassan asserts: 'The British political imagination has tragically become a prisoner of those out of date maps of imperial conquest and power'. That may be true for some, but thinking back to that moment in a basic run-down, humid library, I believe the legacy of empire, both here and in former colonies, is rather more complex than he implies throughout his article.
Last week, Thom Cross suggested that SR should run a six-word short story feature (similar to that in the New York Times
called 'Reflections on the Pandemic'). We have had some entries:
Beginning, middle; no end in sight.
Super spreader, I'm forever blowing bubbles.
Darkness descends but will light prevail?
Hey, people, stay healthy and safe.
How quickly the landscape has changed.
Observe how the landscape is changing.
I think Anthony Seaton must have been watching a different broadcast from myself and many others when he suggests Boris Johnson has 'seen the light'. Apart from emphasising that it's the 'freedom loving' Brits who invented anything useful (that's presumably why we had to take over so many other countries over the world), Johnson then proposed that the failure to control the virus was not his, but that of everyone else. And as Gerry Hassan put it on Twitter: 'Why the hell would anyone think "a stitch in time saves nine" is an appropriate soundbite for a grown man as UK PM to use as a catchphrase in a pandemic? Maybe Boris Johnson learnt it from his nanny'. Another Twitter commentator remarked: 'I've watched Nicola Sturgeon's five-minute statement and Boris Johnson's eight-minute one. God help England'.
And speaking of empire building, Gerry's piece about the fact that empire is still with us was an interesting contrast to Professor Seaton's rather nostalgic memories of it. As I was born in 1950, at the age of eight I was familiar with the maps Gerry described and I remember wondering even then why England (which term was often used as a blanket term for Britain) felt the need to boss all those other countries about even though they were so far away. Maybe some of us have never felt the desire to be a citizen of an erstwhile 'great power' – or maybe we were just born awkward?
Dr Mary Brown
Even stranger times have been visited on us all this week. For me specifically, my eldest son returned to Edinburgh last Friday from his wee holiday touring the north of Scotland. It was a scheduled visit, but did not go totally as he had envisaged. The plan had been to top and tail his break, spending time with us prior to and then post his trip. The first part went smoothly but his return to the capital for a couple of nights, before finally departing for London on Sunday, meant he had to stay, not with us, but instead in a local hotel. We did manage to meet for dinner Friday night, lunch on Saturday and the first half of the match in a pub on Sunday, but it all felt a bit strange. Especially on Friday night when, on the stroke of 10pm, the pubs and restaurants emptied and the streets of my area of Edinburgh suddenly filled with people making for home.
So you might think that was the issue concerning or upsetting me most this week, but you would be wrong. Okay, so my middle son Dominic was unable to join us for dinner as that would be breaking the two household rule and Nicholas, the eldest, being proscribed from entering the house, perplexed and upset Daisy our wee dog, but again this was not what has been troubling me.
The upsetting issue is that one of my colleagues has gone and got themselves a puppy. A gorgeous wee jet black Labrador to be precise. Like a large number of people post lockdown and with the immediate to mid-term working patter looking very much like it will comprise working from home, she has taken the plunge. So why does this have any effect on, far less upset me, I hear you possibly ask?
Well, it is like this, having a dog was my thing, the thing I was known for. You know what I mean. Colleagues, friends and casual acquaintances I met would ask: 'Hi Frank how's your dog?' 'What is she up to now?' 'How is your dog coping with lockdown?' – and other general dog related banter. Now it's going to be: 'How's your dog Frank and what about you (x) and your dog (y)?' (Keeping them both anonymous to protect their identity). No longer just my thing, my USP or my individual characteristic, my stock has fallen as I have gone overnight from being the guy with the
dog, to a guy with a
dog, diminishing my standing in one fell swoop.
And, of course, I can see where all this will lead (not a pun) as we lock horns in competition over who has the most stylish dog bed, winter coat, cutest novelty dog jumper, best collar and leash set, as the dog wars build and escalate around who is best at 'giving a paw' or fiercest at barking at the postie! Though I don't blame the dog or hold any ill will to him. It was all working so well, why do people have to go and interfere by changing things? Can they just not leave them as they are?
(that dog guy)
Once again, it was a joy to read Keith Aitken's article on matters French. He writes with such a light touch yet manages to inform his readers. I envy him living in France. A daughter of mine speaks fluent French attained by her studies at the Catholic University of Lyon; and her sister has a working knowledge of the language. If I win the EuroMillions tonight, I'll be looking for a residence in France.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org