The burial of strangers

Walking in the Clifton area of Bristol recently, I came across a small piece of ground almost hidden behind a hedge. It was being tended by the man pictured below, who did not tell me his name but explained that he had decided to restore and maintain a burial-ground that had been used for nearly a century until 1871. The Historic England record confirms that it was an ‘overflow graveyard for St Paul’s, Clifton (demolished), much used by visitors to the Hotwells. Closed 1871’. 

The picture above comes from the 1990s and shows the state of the burial-ground more than a century after it was closed.

I was moved by the restoration, which, the attendant explained, was in remembrance of hundreds of unknown people buried there during the 18th and 19th century who had come to the Bristol Hot Wells for cure. As they were not local to Bristol, they were buried outside the parish in the strangers’ burial-ground.

The hot wells were owned by the Merchant Venturers, a Bristol business association which still exists, and were central to the development of Clifton as a genteel resort in the early 18th century. Hotwells’ popularity lasted about a century. Sewage from the river seeped into the springs, which became toxic. Pleasure-seekers went elsewhere for their fun and Hotwells gained the reputation as a last resort for the incurable, many of whom are buried in the Strangers’ Burial Ground at the bottom of Lower Clifton Hill.

That the number of our Members be unlimited

NPG D8548; Thomas Hardy after Unknown artist

“That the number of our Members be unlimited.”  This was the first rule of the London Corresponding Society, formed in January 1792 to debate the necessity of parliamentary reform. The main test of membership was agreement that “the welfare of these kingdoms requires that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament”.  Within six months, the Society claimed more than 2000 members. In 1794, Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker, the founder of the Society, was arrested with 11 other members; he was committed to the Tower and later to Newgate.  When he was acquitted on a charge of high treason, the London crowd went wild with delight and dragged him in triumph through the streets.  But by the end of the decade the London Corresponding Society had been outlawed. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was banned; meetings were prohibited; and Hardy was running a shoe shop near Covent Garden.


E.P.Thompson, from whom I take the above account, suggests that the London Corresponding Society should be thought of as “popular radical” organisation rather than as “working-class”.  At one end, it reached out to the coffee houses, taverns and dissenting churches of Piccadilly, Fleet Street and the Strand; at the other, it touched the older working-class communities of Wapping, Spitalfields and Southwark. Its first organiser lived in Piccadilly, but its secretary was a working man, there was a low weekly subscription, and meetings were both a social occasion and a centre of political activity.  Most importantly, there was the democratic determination embodied in the leading rule: “That the number of our members be unlimited.”

Thompson comments that to throw open the doors to propaganda and agitation in this “unlimited” way implied a new notion of democracy, which cast aside ancient inhibitions and trusted to self-activating and self-organising processes among the common people.  The comparison with the currently burgeoning Labour Party membership is striking.   It may be, as Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, has recently claimed, that a number of revolutionary socialists have found a home in Momentum, the group that supports a popular movement to sustain Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.  But the sheer number of members makes clear that this is a genuinely radical movement. The meetings of Momentum that I have attended in Bristol have been social as well as political, and characterised by a collaborative enthusiasm for genuine change. The efforts of the National Executive Council of the Parliamentary Labour Party to disenfranchise 130,000 recently joined members will only fuel this afflatus.

The hopes and aims of this popular movement, at the beginning of the 21st century, are not quite the same as those of the London Corresponding Society and other similar societies (such as those in Sheffield, Derby and Manchester) that arose at the beginning of the 19th century.  The desire is not for parliamentary reform per se but for attention to structural social inequalities that have been exacerbated by globalisation.  Many of those who voted to leave the EU have said that they wanted to “get their country back”.  They were expressing a natural wish for ownership and control.  Unfortunately, Brexit itself will not achieve this.   Only last week the death was reported of the sixth Duke of Westminster, whose property holdings spread across the world are worth £13 billion but will not be liable to inheritance tax.

Corbyn is clearly an egalitarian who desires social justice, and the great majority of his supporters share his belief in the possibility of a better world.  Thomas Hardy and the London Corresponding Society failed in the short-term, but they initiated a radical social movement that, in a different context, is currently enjoying a renaissance.




Open letter (2) to Thangam Debbonaire 

Terryl Bacon has written to Thangam following her Facebook post explaining her decision to resign from the shadow front bench.

Dear Thangam,

Thank you for your open letter explaining why you resigned and the unhappy circumstance in which you found yourself as regards Corbyn. I regret the unnecessary stress you have undergone. I respect the values you espouse and I sincerely hope your treatment will be fully successful.

I trust that the poor communications which created your stress were not aimed at you personally but were the result of lack of political nous and the almost inevitable crossed wires which happen far too easily in complex organisations. As a former chair of a large union branch, I understand that, with the best will in the world, mistakes are sometimes made which might feel personal to the recipient.

That said, I would like to address some of the comments you made in your letter.

Unless one is happy to say, “my party right or wrong” or “my leader right or wrong”, it is important to be critical as you have been. However, when I look at what the Labour Party did Not do during its long term in office which started with a large majority in the Commons: The PLP did Not repeal any of the Thatcherite anti-union legislation. The PLP did Not stop the privatisation of the railways or the selling off of other National assets. Although some good things were done with the NHS and with the schools, during the period to which you referred, the gap between the richest and the poorest in this country grew. Meanwhile, a war was started and continued which brought millions of pounds to Britain’s arms manufacturers and made millions of innocent people suffer terribly to this day.

One could characterise the difference between the PLP and the Tories over the last two decades as neo-liberal lite and neo-liberal heavy. This difference has done little to address the real life situation of the most marginalised in our society. Those who blame Corbyn for the disaffection of the working class show a lack of historical understanding. The PLP could have made a huge difference for the good of the people under Blair but instead it largely continued the iniquitous status quo. That is why I have not wanted to be in Labour since Blair.

The PLP which you champion continues to be a figleaf for anti-humanist policies. I, and many other people, were appalled when the majority of the PLP members voted last week to spend £30+ billion on Trident instead of on the NHS. And it is instead. I think austerity is largely a myth in service of the elite but clearly there is a finite budget as we live on a finite planet.

Until Corbyn’s voice was heard, I had despaired of politics. He is different. He does have an agenda which inspires hundreds of thousands of people; especially the young. Yes, Corbyn lacks social graces and he has been clumsy but he has remained calm and steadfast and, as his popularity shows, for those of us who do not want more of the same, Corbyn is definitely electable!

I certainly think he owes you an apology for what you experienced under his leadership and I shall write and tell him. As important as that is, his apology for Labour’s war mongering meant a lot to several million of us.

I know that you have been too unwell to attend Parliament and I regret that you were not allowed to do so via email. Surely, that should be changed? But I wonder if you would publish what you would have voted during your time in office had you been able to do so. I ask, because I have checked Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record over the years and I agree with him; most especially so when he has Not voted the neo-liberal party line.

I am keeping an open mind on the split within the PLP; but I am looking for an honest leader. One who respects people’s ability to think for themselves; not a cheer leader for the PLP establishment.

Yours sincerely,

Terryl Bacon

Flying with the NHS


The new Southmead hospital is an airport. 

There’s a shuttle bus from the car park 

(Though you can walk in five minutes.) 

You check in on arrival 

And walk through a vast atrium to the designated gate. 

There your credentials are checked and they say:

‘Oh, sorry, that clinic’s not running today. 

We shouldn’t have made that appointment. 

Can you come back tomorrow?’

I think they need better ground control. 


Chelsea Pensioners

A band of jazz musicians, some retired, regularly play the Chelsea Inn in Easton, Bristol


Catching the swing, we synco-

pate into the Chelsea. The band

of six take time from years gone when:

brass resonates at front,

piano trips an autonomic rhythm,

banjo strikes arpeggio. Players retune

from lives of slower time,

set glasses dancing. Outside, Bristol

in January plays gusty wind,

debris and detritus; but in

the pub the air is clarinet

as time’s lefthanders beat the rhythm strong,

keep ragged time enhancing.

January Swimmers

Lido at Christmas

The sky is dark within the outdoor bathing pool.

Thin wraiths of steam ascend the solitary swimmers.

Swimming in January is serious. Three men, one woman

Propel themselves in lengths scooped out by hands

And arms bent right to gain dramatic traction.

Lights, blue and white, bedeck the changing roofs;

A Christmas tree is pricked with small red torches.

Double glazed diners wear cashmere sweaters

And sharp pressed trousers. Warmer by the blue-grey splash outside,

They sense their privilege. Only the swimmers toil,

Washing themselves clean of the old year,

Buoying their souls to meet the coming spring.


Virtual Reality


Virtual reality is making a comeback, said Mandy Rose, Senior Research Fellow at the Bristol Digital Cultures Research Centre, introducing New Media artist Oscar Raby to a packed audience on 24 October at the Pervasive Media Studio. Heralded in the 1980s by Timothy Leary and others as a new form of experiential connectivity, VR’s early manifestations failed to meet expectations and it was sidelined by the rapid development of the World Wide Web. However, technical developments and the enthusiasm of a new generation of media artists have made for a resurgence of immersion in a technologically mediated reality. Oscar Raby’s Assent is (in the words of Rose) “one of only a handful of projects that currently sits at the intersection of documentary, interactivity and virtual reality”.

After the military took control of Chile in the coup of September 1973, a “Caravan of Death” travelled the country by helicopter, conducting executions of military detainees. According to Oscar Raby, this was a mechanism to instil terror into the community. It was also a way of demonstrating the force of the central authorities to military staff outside the capital, and, by making them complicit in the actions of the junta, to ensure their loyalty. Oscar explains that his autobiographical immersive documentary “puts the user in the footsteps of my father, who in 1973 was a 22-year-old army officer stationed in the north of Chile, on the day when the Caravan of Death came to his regiment. By putting the audience on the scene alongside my father using virtual reality technology, Assent provides the audience an opportunity to engage personally with the events and emotions of that day, through his eyes, and mine”.

After attending an introductory talk by Oscar, I had the opportunity to experience Assent. The Oculus Rift viewing equipment was a black box resembling a pair of covered, chunky binoculars that covered my eyes and was held to my head by an elastic strap, augmented by a pair of stereo headphones. It was not very large but was initially slightly uncomfortable. Throughout, I retained my sense of being grounded, sitting in a chair in the Pervasive Media Studio; if I moved my eyes downwards, I could see a chink of daylight. Nonetheless, the virtual reality experience was unique and extraordinary.

After a brief introductory warning text about the experience to come, I found myself in Oscar’s studio. I could look all around, at the walls, floor and ceiling, and everything was there. There appeared to be an overhead projector on the floor; several paintings displayed on the walls; chairs and tables; and lights hanging from the ceiling. As my friend Terryl Bacon, who also viewed the presentation, pointed out, this immersion experience was very unlike participation in a computer game: it was contemplative. Suddenly, Oscar appeared, standing in the room. He was flat and immobile, like a cardboard cut-out; this was the appearance of all the characters that appeared in the presentation. He spoke to me as his father: he said that he thought I might have found the equipment hard to manage, and was glad I was there. You can hear this part of the presentation in the first part of the trailer.

Speaking as to his father, the virtual Oscar told me that he was going to take me back to that day in 1973 when I witnessed the execution of a group of prisoners captured by the military regime in Chile. The scene changed to a well-realised three-dimensional representation of a field with low hills in the background. Oscar’s recorded voice told me to look intently at two figures in the distance. This action took me rapidly towards the figures, one of whom was Oscar. He continued the story suggesting that this time I could take more time than I was able to do on that fateful day in 1973. I wanted to take time, and enjoyed looking carefully at the features of trees that moved three-dimensionally through space as I turned towards them. But I was disturbed by the fact that I couldn’t see my feet. I looked down. I felt as if I was in the scene but I wasn’t there. VR-2But there was little time to reflect on this, as soon we were carried forward through the leaves and branches of three-dimensional woodland to the scene of execution, represented by a number of figures, two of whom resembled Oscar and his father. A rifle cracked intermittently and the figures became grossly distorted. I am not sure whether the presentation suffered a glitch at this point or whether I failed to pause the programme by looking intently at the figures; Terryl tells me that she was able to look at them for a while and to see sky through their mouths and eye-sockets. The presentation finished and the real-life Oscar removed my headphones and viewing equipment.

I sat, moved by the horror of the execution and by the extraordinary three-dimensional experience in which I had been immersed. I didn’t know what to say, and there were people waiting to engage with the experience; so I told Oscar that I would write to him. This blog is my response.

A disturbing and provocative aspect of this virtual reality experience was the conflict between participation and passivity. At the beginning, when I appeared to be inside Oscar’s studio and could look wherever I wanted, I felt master of the situation. But, as the story unfolded, I became aware that the scope of my participation was extremely limited. As Oscar said in his introductory presentation, the viewer is on a track. Indeed, I could not change the events at all, beyond spending a longer time looking at the landscape than Oscar’s father would have done on that traumatic day. As I say, I may have failed to manage the last part effectively, but I did not see the death squad; I saw only the distorted bodies of a few soldiers and civilians. The last part of the presentation resembled the shocking climax of a movie that I could only watch. The effect was similar to the last part of the trailer.

On reflection, I think that reasons for the experience of the last part of the programme may have to do with the artist’s difficulty in rendering the execution, even though he has been in conversation with his father about it for over twenty years. Although the viewer is put in the position of Oscar’s father, the actual moment of execution is elided from this immersive virtual reality. The artist’s agony over his father’s participation may be suggested by the presentation’s title, Assent.

The question that arises for me is: can a VR presentation do more than add a further dimension of immersion to the viewing experience? Can the viewer’s contemplation change the experience, or bring a new perception to it? Or is even the experience of immersive reality inevitably confined by the artist’s conceptualisation?

Bristol Radical Film Festival

Today was the last day of the Bristol Radical Film Festival at the Cube Microplex, a wonderfully rundown small theatre converted into a centre for creativity and debate.  Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill showed their film The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on Engels’ original analysis of the baleful effects of contemporary (1840s) class structure and relationships.  The film’s subtitle is: “Everything changes, everything stays the same.”   Its mixture of film and theatre (working people dramatising their own condition) was inspired by John McGrath’s 1970’s BBC Play for Today The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil: