Circumstances Are Temporary, Class Is Permanent

On Class, Social Mobility and Absurd Ancestors

My mother was born in a palace, the daughter of a family of wealth and influence. On coming to London she first worked in a factory. When I was born she was sewing for piece rates to make ends meet.

So when my daughter asked me what class we are I didn’t have a ready answer of plebian or patrician. Not having a ready answer turned out to be the right one, the question merited some thought.

The current method of measuring social mobility is based on the work of Goldthorpe in the 1970s. Originally it asked for your occupation in midlife and compared it to that of your father. Fifty years on the question has been adapted to ask what profession the main breadwinner in the household had when the respondent was aged 14. The seven categories are allocated to three broad ranges, the Salariat at the top, then Intermediate Classes and finally Working Classes.

When I was 14 my mother had a clerical job in a bank; routine work that put her squarely in the Working Class. The methodology does not ask if you were born in a palace. For me, my mother’s aristocratic heritage was just a rich source of stories. The reality was that our financial situation was precarious and there was no option other than hard work. Working Class it is, maybe.

Even without her history we didn’t fall easily into working class tropes. Although we lived in a terraced house, it was in a leafy London suburb and not a grim industrial town. When I was 14 my brother was studying at the LSE and I attended an eye-wateringly expensive school with my fees paid by the government, scholarships and bursaries. Education is the traditional lever for social mobility and we had pulled firmly on it.

By the way, if you want to give a poor kid some complex hang ups about wealth, privilege and entitlement, then send them to a rich kids’ school. Some of that may bleed into the rest of what you read here.

Both my parents were university graduates. My father’s very early death leaves unanswered what career heights he might have scaled. In Pakistan he worked for the Pakistan Economist, and as a younger man he had worked in the telegraph office because his English was good. At the time of his death he was an internal accountant for a firm of solicitors. His short life doesn’t give many clues but he clearly turned his hand to anything requiring literacy and numeracy. Without a family leg up I’d still back him to have free climbed his way up the social strata. His own father was apprenticed to a tailor when an illness wiped out most of the breadwinners in the family. Before that the trail goes cold.

It all seems to me to point to a place on the Working Class starting line, but with senses trained on the gun to race for a more comfortable economic destination.

Climbing the ladder

But what of my children? Both have crossed the threshold of 14 and in answering the social mobility question would put me in the Salariat; a senior management job gives me the hallmarks of Middle Class.

I’ll take that as long as they remember the path it took to get there: their grandmother sewing night and day while their father gurgled at her feet.

It all sounds very romantic and rags to riches, a salutary tale of hard work and good education being the foundation for progress; fuel for the myth of meritocracy. Well, perhaps not so much of a myth. A study by the LSE and UCL, reported by the BBC, concluded that social mobility was “the norm and not the exception” as 48% of people rose up the ladder from their parents’ position, compared with 31% who slid down. The social mobility game seems to have fewer snakes than ladders.

As ever things are not that simple.

Gregory Clark’s work has found that class is persistent for families. Individuals may break the glass ceiling or crash through it, but over the course of generations, certain privileges persist. He estimates that it takes ten to fifteen generations for familial wealth or poverty to dissipate. The New Republic notes his observation:

“…if you live in England and share a last name with a Norman conqueror listed in the Domesday book of 1086—think Sinclair, Percy, Beauchamp—you have a 25 percent higher chance of matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge.”

Clark, G The Son Also Rises

Something about the study sits uncomfortably with me. I’d like to believe that every person is a well of untapped potential waiting to be realised if only given the right opportunities and guidance. With my less dewy-eyed, more analytical hat on I can reconcile Clark’s observation with the UCL/LSE stats.

The Dyer lemma

Let’s start with Danny Dyer, a British actor. On “Who Do You Think You Are?” a TV show that traces the roots of famous people, we learned that he is a descendent of King Edward III (1312-1377). His reaction and the juxtaposition with the hard man, rough edged, cockney persona he projects (it may all be real) made for great TV.

A little bit of back-of-an-envelope calcuation tells me that in principle half the population of the United Kingdom could share the same heritage. Perhaps there is more to the saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” than we first thought.

The Dyer Lemma* provides the reconciling point we’re looking for. Even without the disruption of wars, rebellions, treachery and infidelity, it would only take a few generations for the second sons of second sons to be mixing it up with the rest of us. Clark’s observation that a core retain their status over several hundred years does not invalidate their cousins joining the ebb and flow of social mobility. Indeed, for a time they will over-contribute to the downward cadre as for them it is the only possible direction of travel. For all the Sinclairs, Percys and Beauchamps attending Oxbridge, there is a plethora of them who didn’t.

Even on Jacob’s Ladder some of the angels were going down not up. And though Jacob’s seed may indeed have “spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south”, very few were prophets.**

Goldthorpe’s original work on social mobility was limited in two important ways, which I believe he acknowledged – it did not account for the role of women in the workforce or of migrants. While the new mode of posing the original question “what was the profession of the main breadwinner…” leans towards gender neutrality it can still fall awkwardly in the career breaks many women experience and it misses the driving purpose of migrants uprooting themselves to change their stars.

My mother, woman and migrant, makes the traditional method of measurement next to useless in my case. Her story, while it is not unique, is both tragic and inspiring. It is also a reasonable case study for a three-generation model of the migrant experience.

From riches to rags

My parents had been married for just over seven years when my father passed away. Having worked in a factory, at a dry cleaner’s, and for a greengrocer, my mother had by that time acquired a large metal-framed Singer sewing machine. It dominated the dining room of our house. That room included a sofa bed which would be unfurled at night for her to sleep on. The rest of the house was rented out to lodgers. Her income from rent, that sewing machine, and her younger brother’s part-time jobs between his studies, formed the basis of our early survival.

There are two paths to financial security for the migrant, both involve dedication and hard work. Some have the acumen and appetite for risk to trade their way out of poverty. That wasn’t us. The other route is to study your way into the ranks of the doctors, lawyers and savants, out of the labouring classes.

For my mother, her straitened circumstances were a blip, a cruel hand dealt by fate but she still held the aces of diligence and frugality. Traditional, white-collar professions for her sons would provide enough money not to have to worry about money, and the linked but distinct goals of respect and respectability. Quality schooling and reputable universities were all part of that equation.

Her own family were Prufrocks to the Hamlets of the Kingdom of Avadh. The founders of our Indian dynasty were scholars and clerics at the royal court. The mahal, where my mother was born, literally means palace. It is in fact more of a grand country home, let’s call it a modest chateau. It is fronted by an Imambargah, a chapel will do as a translation for our purposes. The significance of the Imambargah is that it has two minarets. In this it is rare, possibly unique. The royal buildings of Avadh had four minarets, and during the British Empire Avadh’s kings had little else to do with their wealth than stand up grand buildings. Private buildings were only allowed one minaret. Our two were a mark of special royal favour. The gates to the mahal have recently been replaced. They feature the double fish emblem of Avadh, as the original gates did, another mark of royal favour.

New mahal gates

One of my ancestors was personal tutor to the children of an Avadh princess. The story goes that the British stirred up the soldiers in the princess’s palace to mutiny. My ancestor was in the bath. Hearing the ruckus he came out dressed only in a towel and faced the mutineers. He issued such a stern reprimand that they went sheepishly back to their posts.

My own grandfather reprised this act of courage, facing down a mob to save the life of a Hindu man in the Lalukhayt district of Karachi.

These snippets of history I got from my mother. In an unwitting precursor to Gregory Clark, she would tell me that our family had enough wealth to last for “saat pusht” seven generations but frittered it away in two. She saw first-hand the last vestiges of her family’s grandeur, and the hardship of migration first to Pakistan and then to the UK. It forged her character – diligence and frugality, dedication and hard work; wealth was a curse that led to laziness and indolence.

The goals were simple enough – security, respect, respectability.

What is respectable?

My first proper job baffled her. I was on the graduate training scheme at Ford, while my college mates were either doing crazy hours for silly money at Investment Banks, or duly, dully enrolled on training contracts for the big professional services firms.

Love for my friends aside, I still firmly believe that the audit profession is a full employment racket for the mediocre Middle Classes. It would have been the end of me and, while I eventually became an accountant by mistake, I count myself fortunate never to have endured life as an auditor. On the flip side this essentially meaningless activity is a predictable path into the Middle Class for those who aspire to it. Swings, roundabouts.

Guessing how much you can sell a car for in five years time (my last job at Ford) was still a bit too close to the actual act of manual labour for mum. She embraced that willingly for herself, she wanted something else for my brother and me. It wasn’t until I moved into one of the big consulting firms that she was reconciled to my “career” path, albeit briefly as I veered off again soon after.

I could have achieved the security objective as a plumber, I think I was better suited to it to be honest, but that respectability thing is a kicker.

That’s a neat encapsulation of the first two steps in the three-generation model. The first generation sublimates its own desires and comfort in the quest to set a platform for its children, a base from which they can power forward. The second generation follows in its wake, witness to what has been expended for its sake. Fitter, happier, more productive than its predecessor but ultimately slave to the same imperatives.

Third time’s the charm

The third generation, well this is where it gets interesting. The struggle to survive of the first generation is now a story, the history of the grandparents. The third generation lacks direct experience of those times, and the deeply ingrained philosophy of “get yourself a job first”.

Of course, most will follow in their parent’s footsteps, a small nudge up or down the place on the ladder that has been secured for them. Some will break out. Leaning on their financial security and their freedom from the schema instilled in their parents they strike a different path. They can take risks that might be incomprehensible to their grandparents, and make choices that will either be resented or revelled in by their parents.

The third is the generation of artists and musicians, the early blooming authors and aspiring sports stars. Of those that try, most will join the long tail of those who almost or never make it. The point is that they get the chance to try.

Those generations of my maternal ancestors who let generational wealth slip through their fingers were all well educated polyglots, university gold medals abounded. Their favoured pastime was writing verse in Persian and the higher variants of Urdu, and they were good at it – publishing books and occupying the pages of highfalutin journals. It wasn’t just a male pursuit, the women of the house were at it too, for reasons of modesty publishing anonymously. The problem was that no one was professionally managing the estates, investing the returns or handling expenditure like an adult. They were notoriously naïve, easily cheated and swindled.

The periodicity of the phases was longer in their time, leaning into the centuries Clark estimates, but the model stands for them too as medieval migrants with the Mughals – achieve security, embed it, leverage it, or in this case: spend it.

I find myself admiring those profligate ancestors. My brother, for reasons too complex to go into here, is custodian of a set of family treasures – decoupe art one of our forebears made. The pieces are delicate and really beautiful. Apparently as the family sat around in the mahal swapping verses and literary jokes he would join in and at the same time be snipping away with his scissors and these bits of paper ephemera would appear.

No photo description available.
Part of the collection of decoupe art

Yes, they had a life of extraordinary privilege, and yes of course they should have husbanded that wealth better. Nonetheless if all you can do with inherited wealth is curate it, then it is a prison. Life is a game of chance and cycles. Some generations have no choice but to build, to make a sacrifice. What’s the point if the drudgery continues through the ages?

And someone has to be the fall guy, to serve as a lesson that wealth, whether it takes a generation or ten, ultimately disappears.

There was a glorious, absurd, illogical stand my ancestors once took, refusing the money they were offered by the British for the land on which Lucknow railway station was built. The British were usurpers, their money was tainted. It was economic suicide; a genuinely beautiful sticking to principle and utterly magnificent act of stupidity. I never met them, I love them for both. Living in London I can rise above the irony and say we were never collaborators.

The gravity of their gesture lived on. My grandfather could have spared his family great hardship, spared me as a direct consequence, had he taken up property he was entitled to in Pakistan. He turned it down as others were homeless and adrift in their new homeland. By that time he had none of the familial wealth to fall back on, but the morality instilled in him, to do the right thing irrespective of the cost, is immensely precious. I love that too.

I don’t begrudge any of them their principles and the consequent costs. What matters in the end is not where you stand on the ladder but what you stand for. That can be from the privilege of a palace, or sewing night and day in a single room to make ends meet. Ultimately, that is true class. 

Which still leaves my daughter’s question to be answered. “What class are we?” the subtext, with the self-centredness of childhood was “What label should I attach to myself?” What I eventually said to her was that it did not matter. If it was important to her she could claim to be descended from great wealth or great hardship. The key was to know the history, to learn from it, to absorb the stories of courage, diligence, frugality, and understand the pitfalls of entitlement, indolence and profligacy. From there she should strike her own path and make good decisions or bad decisions, unencumbered by her ancestors, immediate or distant. She is, after all, the third generation.


* The Dyer Lemma is not a thing, I made it up

** Genesis 28:12-14

Find out more about my writing here.


Storytelling – or just me telling a story

Why let your voice be tamed?

The irrepressible Phoebe Darqueling at Steampunk Journal has posted the audiobook version of my story In the Cavern of the Sleepers, head on over to have a listen.

This was a really fun project. For the reading I had to try my hand at different voices. I also experimented with Audacity to get just the right meditation drone noise for the interstitial music.

It was surprising exhausting to do the reading. Paying attention to every word, switching voices, concentrating on keeping a measured pace but adding urgency when required, all took its toll. I enjoyed it, and if the chance comes along I would like to do it again. Next time I’ll be better informed about what it takes.

Go have a listen then pop back and tell me what you think. If you really liked it here are a few other readings:

Sonnets to Aurelia by Robert Nichols (Instagram)

An excerpt from Desole Habibti (Youtube)

An excerpt from Like Clockwork (Youtube)

My story is set in the jungles of India. If your steampunk interest leans more to airships you can also check out Phoebe reading Secrets and Airships by A.F. Stewart.


The opening quote is from Emeli Sandé of course, and the photocredit goes to my cousins the Photosapiens

And you can find out more about my writing here

Jugaar and the art of sub-Continental steampunk

I was introduced to the concept of Jugaar * by my uncle many years ago and was instantly delighted.

The story goes that in the time of the Raj a British engineer was looking despondently at the broken coupling between train carriages. The train, he thought, could not run until a replacement part arrived from the foundry.

His workers, in a display of Indian ingenuity, came up with an alternative; bodged together from whatever they had at hand (whether it was intricately knotted steel cable, daisy-chained cargo hooks, or the simple expedient of some Herculean pehlwan holding things together by brute force is lost in the mists of history). The train ran on time and thus was born the jugaar: a join, just not the way you thought. The concept has expanded to refer to any kind of engineering hack or a simple, innovative solution using the materials to hand.

I was mostly delighted because this story linked my love of a bodge, born and bred in London, to my Asian heritage. Every repair with non-standard parts and build with what I had lying around the workshop was suddenly part of a grand tradition. I also loved the economy and efficiency of it. In our throw-away society a mindset geared to reuse, repurpose, recycle is of enormous and immediate merit. (You can check out my scaffold garden bench here)

This is my latest fix – when the plastic tab on the back of a twenty-year-old amplifier snapped, I opened it up, forced in some speaker wire, wrapped it around the connector and added a screw connector to the other end. Job done.


You find this replayed all over the subcontinent: workshops running late into the night by tube light, a skinny guy on his haunches with an angle grinder or a welding torch finding a way to fix something with the bits and pieces of something else.

It is on the streets too, in the antique Bedford trucks belching black smoke that are somehow still on the road, every part so patched and mended that the original vehicle is only a memory. You might find a kid hanging out the door applying the brakes by means of a wooden block attached to his foot. Of course in this case, throw-away may be the better environmental and safety option.

blue and black truck on road near building and two motorcycles

Photo by Ali Madad Sakhirani on

All of which brings me to the paucity of Indian steampunk (I use Indian here because the historical setting of steampunk is pre-partition). Why is it that a society that has raised engineering creativity and bodging fabrication to a way of life doesn’t have a thriving literary sub-genre that revels in the making of things? I have only encountered this – Steampunk India –  (found by the incomparable Phoebe, of whom more below). Even my own “Like Clockwork” is set in Victorian England.


And so to the world of “In the Cavern of the Sleepers” my story that will be in the forthcoming “Gears, Ghouls and Gauges” anthology. Steampunk set in India, blending science and mysticism, and an accommodation between Islam and Hinduism.

Here’s a blurb to whet your appetite:



We’re running the Kickstarter now to fund the project. At the time of posting it has already reached its minimum funding goal. Phoebe Darqueling is the engine and governer driving this anthology and its sister “Cogs Crowns and Carriages”. Check out Phoebe’s blog to get involved and see all the cool stuff available.

Facebook both covers campaign


* linguistic note on Jugaar – it is sometimes spelt jugaaR, denoting the hard sound where your tongue curls to the top of your palate. Also sometimes transliterated as jugaard or jugaad. Whatever you do don’t roll it.

Find out more about my writing here.

The Gates to Common Ground

photosapiens agarbatti

Image courtesy of The Photosapiens, click to see more.

The Gates to Common Ground


India is a steaming melting pot of faiths and cultures, one I was briefly cast into as a callow youth. I brought all my first world certainties to that extraordinary, baffling country. I hope I left some of them behind.

My journey started with my ego nicely plumped. An armed guard met me at Delhi airport and deposited me in the bosom of my family in Lucknow. There, amidst those who had remained through partition and the lure of the West, I was loved and coddled. But my movements were bounded by the modest compound, and I lacked all the freedom to roam I knew from London.

Opposite the house there was a temple. While I never went there, it provides the strongest memory of the trip. Every day the temple PA system would squeak to life. Over the braying of streetwalking cows and the intemperate traffic noise, a female voice would rise up in worship. I knew nothing of this lady but the relentlessness of her prayer. Whether she was maiden, or mother, or crone; weathered by care, surrounded by offspring or virgin – I never discovered. Her voice has stayed with me over the decades.

She read a repeated litany of thanksgiving and beseeching. It went on for hours and was almost incomprehensible to me. Time and familiarity had created an elision of words that made them almost impossible to follow. At first it was just annoying. The annoyance bred ridicule: constant use had lined the lady’s throat with gravel, her voice lacked any melody or softness. It was harsh on the ear and grated on the nerves.

By the time I left it was something I waited for. I would sit on the rooftop as the swelling cacophony of suburban life overwhelmed the quiet of morning. And then the alien soundtrack would gather its ponderous momentum. The harsh voice would batter the worldly hubbub into submission, silencing the chatter that filled my head. In those moments, before the inevitable call to join the family for lunch, I found a peculiar peace and freedom. The petty concerns of living evaporated as I fell into the immersion of her worship. The transactions that form life were diminished. I relinquished my hold on them with increasing ease. I was no longer bound by the fading glory of the cracked walls and peeling gate of my uncle’s home. I relearned in that time the joy of writing, and thinking without constraint.

It was only later I recalled that I had felt that stillness and freedom before, in an environment that could not have been more different. It was at choral Evensong. The rooftop in Lucknow was painfully bright in the sunlight, with rowdy, impatient India rising from the street below. In contrast the chapel was dim and quiet. Ancient oak absorbed light and sound. Even my breathing was hushed, as if the enveloping robes for lay visitors laid a geas of monasticism upon me. The service was pretty high up the candle, designed to awe as much as inspire. It was during the Apostles’ Creed that the same sense of stillness claimed me. The possibility of a broader understanding reached out to me, unlocked by absorption and chant.

In itself that moment is not unusual or exclusive, it is often found in music and meditation. Now I am aware of the sensation I have found it in such prosaic circumstances as a long night drive. With the busy, practical part of the mind locked in concentration, the higher functions can be uncoupled and freed. What startled me was to find that outcome across such a broad religious divide.

I found it again most recently, and perhaps most surprisingly on Hajj. During three weeks of pilgrimage the quiet, contemplative moments were plentiful. What astonished me was to be so transported during the rite of Tawaf.

Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime, if their health and financial wherewithal so allow. In past times those in poor far flung villages would save for a lifetime so that one representative could complete the Hajj from among them.

The spiritual function it performs no doubt varies from pilgrim to pilgrim, but some elements are at its core. First and foremost it reinforces the connection of the person to the divine and distances the individual from the concerns they left behind. It also seeks to engender a sense of oneness with all humanity and erase the sense of difference. All male pilgrims wear two simple pieces of unstitched cloth, the ehram. There is no rank and no precedence for wealth. The clothes are deliberately reminiscent of a shroud, the pilgrim will leave reborn.

One of the many acts Muslim pilgrims must undertake is the Tawaf.  They walk seven times around the black draped building in the centre of Mecca – the Kaaba. It is a rite than places God at the centre of creation, and man in his orbit. As one might expect, an endeavour in which several thousand people at a time are involved is stifling and chaotic. It is utterly different to the sedate choreography of Evensong, or the solitary rooftop. Not even the heat is a common factor. In India it was bright, baking direct sunlight; in Mecca it was a strength sapping sauna, fuelled by the skin crawling proximity of sweating bodies.

There is no organisation to it, there is no system. There is no queuing which my Britishness so craves. At any point in time some are beginning their seven circuits, some are in progress and some are finishing. Some people are not there for Tawaf at all, but to touch the building itself, or the holy black stone set in one corner. And there are more people trying to do all this at the same time than the orderly western mind can comprehend. For those familiar with rugby the seven circuits of the Kaaba are like a forty five minute rolling maul. It definitely shares all the rib cracking and toe crushing you would expect from the most violent of gentlemanly pursuits.

In that environment, so far removed from any other experience, and while in constant motion, it seems strange to claim access to the stillness. And yet it was there. The key was in the repetition of prayer, simple words of entreaty and gratitude, over and over. The sensation of elbows and heels and moist collisions faded. I was surrounded, and yet there was a zone of complete calm in which I could orbit. It was a planetary stillness, in which movement was effortless and irresistible and entirely natural. In the very beating heart of Islam I put to use the lessons learned from Hinduism and Christianity.

Somehow in heat and breathless endeavour to put one foot in front of the other, to progress and not impede anyone else, and to pray in fervent helplessness I unlocked the door to which a distant chaplain and dedicated lady had provided the key. In that thronging multitude I found my unique connection to the divine.

And of course we are all built the same way. Our brains are abuzz with inputs and reactions. We respond because therein lies survival and progress. How curious then that the connection sparks into life when that immediacy is constrained.

When we silence the babble of an inquisitive child with a new toy, then the quieter sibling, the one that sees much and says little, can speak up. Only when it is certain of our undivided attention will it share its precocious insights.

All of which left me considering the nature of faith, religion and prayer. In three incomparable religious circumstances I found the secret to freedom from the passage of time, and the constraining awareness of the mundane. The common thread was a method to distance the base concerns of living. Repetition of prayer seemed to be an essential part of the key that unlocked this state.

So what? Have all the world’s faiths merely found the same intellectual opium? Does a morphic resonance underlie the spiritual mind, if there even is such a thing? Do we all crave the same momentary high and nothing more?

I’m wary to claim epiphany. But in those moments of separation and elevation there was a distinct sensation of something more. I sensed a design grander than the primitive needs of food, shelter and procreation. Nor am I willing to categorically state this was a religious experience. These were moments of acknowledgement that the human mind has capability beyond the cunning and avarice of a higher animal. Does it matter if this is an evolutionary trait that promotes adaptation and innovation, or a divinely inspired gift? The fact is that it is there. Whether we ascribe to an external deity or the god within, we are more than the sum of simple biological processes.

More alarming, more heretical still is the realisation that this is no secret at all. Without searching I found the key in plain sight in three different faiths in three different parts of the world. Is it unreasonable to say that faiths of which I have no experience also share it? Or to suggest that other modes of living that do not characterise themselves as faith, or religion, share it too? Look closely and you may find it at the Wailing Wall, in the manic solfège of Sufi singers, or the throbbing intensity of an underground night club.

I wonder how different the world would be if everyone could take that moment to pause, meditate, pray, and touch the sensation of possibility?

I also wonder, as a Muslim, what it might mean for greater interfaith understanding if the restricted precincts of Mecca and Medina could be opened to people of all faiths or none. How would it be if the welcome I have always found in churches and cathedrals could be extended from the holiest sites in Islam?

What if the chaplain that lead evensong could swap his cassock for the rough unstitched ehram, or the chanting lady of Lucknow don a hijab, and join the orbit of chaos and connection? How different would our conversation be when we could say “I have seen what you see, I have been where you have been.”

My instincts say that openness, sharing, the cross contamination of ideas and beliefs is always a good thing. If we look for similarities perhaps we will lose our focus on differences.

If we all share that higher consciousness, the ability to see beyond our own cravings, then perhaps we should share the paths by which we get there.



More of my writing here

I should admit that The Photosapiens are all younger cousins of mine, from the Indian branch of the family, and I did not ask their permission to use the photo – I just told them I was doing it. That’s just how scions of multiculturalism roll.

Jaw Jaw and the Censure


The Hindustan Times reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to address the senate of the University of Cambridge during his three-day visit to Britain in November. This has caused considerable consternation among those currently attending the University, whatever their capacity, and among alumni. The letter at the end of this link is addressed to the Vice Chancellor of the University requesting that he withdraw the invitation. It cites the reasons why such a person should not address the University, among which are his complicity in mass murder, and his systematic silencing of dissenting voices. As an alumnus I have signed the letter. I urge any fellow Cantabrigians reading this blog to consider doing so also.

When I promoted the letter on Facebook it drew two interesting observations from two friends of mine, both men of letters and learning, and in friendships that persist and thrive despite significant differences in our political leanings. The first observation was on whether this action constitutes an act of censorship. This friend is unwavering in his belief that freedom of speech should never be constrained, no matter how hateful the message, or the messenger, as this is a route to, and symptom of a more insidious tyranny. My other friend brought a considered tone of both treating a foreign dignitary with respect, and tempered this with a healthy dose of real politik. Alienating India, a key regional ally, and economic power would be damaging to our self interest. My friend and I learned the phrase “jaw jaw not war war” from the same history teacher decades ago. He went on to argue that by engaging with Mr Modi we have the opportunity to extend our influence over him, and over time draw him closer to our standards of openness and democracy.

I responded to both thus:

In the first instance the stance we are taking is not one of censorship, but censure. I admit though to relishing the irony of not letting a man who suppresses voices air his own. But as PM of India Modi does not lack for platforms from which he can spread his messages. The action is not to silence, but to withhold the cachet and implicit acceptance that goes with speaking at Cambridge when the speaker’s mores are so horribly at odds with the tolerance and intellectual freedom we so value.

Modi will undoubtedly speak at dinners hosted by Cameron and will be toasted by business leaders. The ballrooms and convention centres of Southall and Birmingham will be filled with Indian diaspora hanging off his every word, blind or willfully ignoring the atrocities in which he is complicit and hate mongering of which he is culpable.

Nor are the freedoms we love so cheap that we will hawk them in the bazaar to whoever passes with a purse full of copper. Have you been to India? The inequality there is of a scale you cannot comprehend if all you have seen is the local tragedy of the western homeless, sleeping in the rain shadow of skyscrapers. There an abject, withering poverty sits beside wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Is it to those vaults of hoarded rupees we should sell our self respect.

Are we the world’s penniless drunk, sitting at the bar hoping the brash new money that walks in will buy a round for everyone? Are we the dissolute master returning to his suddenly wealthy manumitted slave with a shy smile, saying “I raised you up and only flogged you gently, and see how well you learned my lessons of violence and entitlement. Take me to lunch and tell me how you did it”?

I am not so readily bought. My Alma mater’s most precious asset is the ennoblement of mind it confers on those who pass through its halls and cloisters. People come to speak there to bask in its reflection. I hope the institution listens to the voices it has nurtured and withholds its light from this murderer of masses, from this silencer of voices.

And yet should we not hold him close? Talk to him rather than shun him, allow our sensibilities to seep into his own? It is a sentiment so self evidently true and right that it should immediately raise the hackles of suspicion. Look carefully at those who eschew estrangement from the things we despise and argue that we should bring our influence to bear. And then follow the sickly sweet scent of the money. It is as self serving a position to take in this instance as it is in our Prime Minister’s toadying with Saudi Arabia, and it is just as fruitless. I have not seen any evidence of influence bringing lasting political change to bear. More than that I think our influence in Britain is a myth we have spun to fill the emotional chasm caused by the loss of an empire. We keep close to other nations to pick their pockets or sell them our silver. Hard money and the consumption of things talks louder than the abstraction of influence. I suspect Churchill knew that in 1954 and his famous quote is just another pillar in his personal myth creation. Perhaps if he had been truthful he would have said, “more, more, not war war”.


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Our Works and Days

What we lost.

The interior love poem
the deeper levels of the self
landscapes of daily life

from Buried 2 (iv) by Michael Ondaatje


There is little that survives of my grandparents on both sides, or indeed my father. I did not meet any of them. What I have pieced together is through the distorted reflection of what my mother remembers as seen in others. My nephew has something of the precision of my father, my cousin shares the earnest, naive idealism of my maternal grandfather, I have something of my maternal grandmother’s gift of making.

I walk and laugh like my father, my brother inherited his enormous sense of responsibility.

It is these touches that endure, fragments of other lives that find their reprise in a syncopated, mutated form generations later, only recognised by those who form the bridge and can remember the stories.

The ankle bracelets in the picture belonged to my maternal grandmother. Little else survives from that era. My wife was given these when we married, and as we are preparing wills she needs to decide where they will go next. Fortunately there is another pair of similar weight from my wife’s family, so we will be able to arrange something equitable for our two daughters. To them my grandmother is just a portrait that hangs in my brother’s house.

More difficult to bequeath will be the family treasure. My brother is custodian of the decoupé art of my ancestor Abu Jaffer (and before you begin planning a heist, it’s not actually worth anything). The family legend is that the girl Abu Jaffer loved married someone else, and he spent the rest of his days a bachelor. There is some suggestion that he may have been a skilled poet, but among my ancestors that at least is not a peculiar distinction (if only a couple of poets could instead have been born with the ability to manage estates and make good decisions, but that story is for another day).


He had no children, he lives on only in these beautiful but fragile bits of paper, and a half remembered romantic tragedy. Or perhaps not, it has been remarked that most of my own stories are romantic tragedies. Perhaps a little of him endures in the family line after all.


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