An eulogy to Willis Wilkie

February 22, 2013 in Blog, Speeches

Every day in every community, ordinary working people do extraordinary acts of great selflessness and courage in the service of their community. We tend to hear and write about luminaries and celebrities and not about them.

I was privileged to be asked to join Fr Nigel Orchard at Christ the Redeemer C of E church in Hanwell, West London, on Friday 22 February 2013 to conduct a service to celebrate the life of one such active citizen, Willis Wilkie (3 Oct 1926 – 5 Feb 2013), who spent most of his life serving communities in the Borough of Ealing.

The eulogy I wrote and delivered at the service coincidentally cuts a swathe of social history through almost 60 years of Caribbean life in Britain. Read the rest of this entry →

Moving English Forward?

March 14, 2012 in Blog

I find this latest Ofsted report both interesting and worrying.

It comes at a time when there is a focus on the disproportionate number of black young people unemployed and the number getting 3 A Levels – 1 out of every 50 as compared to 1 in 8 whites.

Ofsted’s chief inspector,  Sir Michael Wilshaw is concerned about literacy levels in primary schools and wants to introduce a ‘no excuses culture’.  Among other things, he wants the Government to consider lifting the Level  4 benchmark at Key Stage 2 .

Interesting, because I remember well how badly the 50 experienced teachers I recruited from Trinidad to teach in Hackney’s primary schools (mainly) when I was director of education and leisure services there (1989-1996) were treated by headteachers and their UK trained colleagues, including black teachers.  Those Trinidad teachers were rightly appalled at how poor children’s reading, writing and spelling skills were and set out to teach them those skills by tried and tested methods, especially the use of phonics.  I had to discipline one headteacher who had walked into a class to observe a lesson and in the presence of 30 children had remonstrated with the Trinidad teacher and rubbed her work off the blackboard saying:  we don’t use these teaching methods here.  Read the rest of this entry →

Boris J. youth violence strategy: ‘sabotaged’ and ‘a shambles’

March 6, 2012 in Gus in the Media, Print

Boris Johnson’s undertaking to get to grips with knife and youth crime was one of the most welcome of his pledges during the last mayoral campaign. Since moving in to City Hall he’s put time and energy into delivering. But what has really been achieved?

Three members of an advisory group Boris set up to help him tackle serious youth violence have made known their disappointment with his administration’s approach to the issue. The educationalist and social investment consultant Professor Gus John describes the mayoral strategy as “directionless” and “a shambles.” Leadership coach and social policy adviser Viv Ahmun believes the group’s work was undermined by people around the mayor. Richard Taylor, the father of Damilola Taylor who was killed when aged 10 in south London in November 2000, was “hugely frustrated” by his experience with the mayor’s regime. Read the rest of this entry →

New Cross fire – a turning point?

January 18, 2011 in Gus in the Media, Radio, Television

Click here to read the article (BBC)

January 18th 1981 was a point of no return; an important historic moment in the life of Black Britain and arguably a defining moment for our modern diverse society.

On that day a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road, Deptford in south east London ended the lives of 13 black teenagers.

In the 30 years that have passed the controversy over how the fire started has never been laid to rest. Some have said and continue to argue that Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th celebrations were cruelly ended by a fire bomb attack by racists.

Others, including members of the bereaved families, continue to believe that it was started by accident as a consequence of a dispute at the party itself.

What is clear is that the initial police investigation failed to find anyone or establish exactly how the fire started.

Despite two unsatisfactory inquests neither who nor what caused the fire has ever been established. Many people continue to believe that the Metropolitan Police failed in their duty to the 13 children and their families.

The police started the theory of the fire bomb.

On the first day of the investigation a police officer reported to Yvonne’s mother, Armza Ruddock, that people had seen a man throwing a petrol bomb through a window on the ground floor of the house and then run away.

A few days before, Jill Knight a Conservative MP in Birmingham had announced her displeasure at what were deemed to be noisy black house parties.

A theme picked up enthusiastically by anti-immigrant voices at the time. In that climate the fire soon became the spark for a dramatic political intervention by black people, the like of which had never been seen before in Britain.

Incensed by slow police progress and a perceived lack of sensitivity by the authorities to the children’s deaths, mass meetings were organised and a huge march planned for Monday 2 March under the umbrella of a New Cross Massacre Action Group.

It brought together activists from across the spectrum and around the country; black panthers, black parents organisations, community organisers, angry residents, and black youth groups.

Many of the names now associated with Black political participation were either involved in the organisation of the protest or eventually taking part in what was called the Black People’s Day of Action.

The overall organisation of the event was delegated to John La Rose, a formidable intellectual and humanist. In the heat of the battle over race politics and the call for equality and justice for Black people La Rose advocated that the protest should not be focussed around the ‘politics of resentment’. Not everyone agreed.

Thirty years ago it was an extraordinary spectacle to see up to 25,000 mostly black people marching from New Cross to Hyde Park. It took many Londoners by surprise and genuinely unnerved the establishment.

Only two years before in Southall a similar march in the heart of the Asian community for civil rights had ended in the death of campaigner Blair Peach.

Perhaps more importantly it showed that the children of migrants and migrants themselves were at a turning point.

Now they wanted to publically and collectively express their dissatisfaction with what many believed was a culture of discrimination and rights abuse by institutions of state and the police in particular. A positive step to get positive results in the quest for equal treatment.

Until then there was a sense that beyond the Black communities themselves few people acknowledged the contributions being made by these very communities to redefining what it was to be British.

Until then it was still a widespread notion, for example, that you couldn’t be Black and British in Britain. I know because I was asked.

Very soon after the march, the Metropolitan Police launched operation Swamp in south London. It was a trigger for a summer of nationwide rioting that took Margaret Thatcher’s government by surprise.

So when people look back and remember a summer of disturbances 30 years ago; before Brixton, before Toxteth, before Handsworth, Moss Side and St Pauls in the caustic summer of 1981 there was New Cross.

The public inquiries that followed under Lord Scarman (1981) and ultimately to the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence (1999), which looked at the relationship between young people and the Met Police, all in a sense followed on from where the Action Group had left off in its intense monitoring of the police’s conduct over the New Cross fire.

But whilst it can be rightly claimed to be a defining moment in the history of modern Black Britain, for many of the victim’s families the New Cross fire at 439 New Cross Road has left unfinished business.

This article was published on the BBC’s website, on January 18th, 2011.