Friday 12th June, 2020
The last time I went for a long walk was Mothers Day. The UK went into lockdown the next day, I went into full shielding at the same time. After 6 weeks of not leaving the house at all, I snuck out for a short walk to see the Moon with Venus in the night sky. I went out to my local parks a few times more, at times when I thought it would be quiet, exercise, fresh air and needing to see the world compelled me out those few times. It has been a long and also short time to spend alone, save for the company (if you can call it that) of a teenager. The first weeks were hard, weren’t they? Really hard. Now things are easier, the routine of home working and the slowing down in the tempo of life have become the new normal. I rarely saw people outside of work anyway, and I’ve found enough solace in books and online stream gigs to just about keep myself going.
Something about the afternoon of Friday 12th June felt different though and I needed to get myself out for a proper walk. Not just round a park. To feel somehow connected to the urban environment around me again. A Black Lives Matter protest had taken down the statue of Edward Colston a few days before and I’d watched, amazed, at the images on social media of it being toppled, rolled and splashed into the harbour. Yes, yes, I thought. Democratic channels had failed, I’d been among the 11, 000 who had signed a petition asking for its removal and had been angered by the failure to even agree wording for an additional plaque. Sometimes direct action has to be taken. That only the statue was taken tells you everything about the motives, they damaged nothing else, including the thousands of people nearby. Hearing the splash as Colston went in the harbour was cheering. That he met a watery grave, as so many Africans slaves had also, right by Pero’s bridge, named after Pero Jones, a slave, was delicious and deserved irony. I hadn’t been able to take part in the protests or actions, to be a part of that history of peaceful protest, but I wanted to feel connected to it. So I went for a walk to go and see the now empty plinth. It was the first time I had crossed the river in 12 weeks. The first time I had seen Bristol’s harbour. The first time I walked past so many of the places that make me happy to call Bristol my home on the way to see something that had made me feel ashamed, but now made me proud. The empty plinth. Covered in new signs, a black power salute, banners and black balloons and candles in tribute to George Floyd. This isn’t the erasure of history, it is the start of a new chapter. One where people, sick of decades of inaction, took matters into their own hands and made a powerful statement. One that has echoed around the world. Just as the horrific killing of George Floyd had beforehand.
I haven’t done enough, been enough of an ally. I know that and I’m sorry. My white skin allows me to take time off from the anti racist fight whenever I want and that is a privilege. Yes, I signed a petition or two and I called out friends who objected to Colston Hall’s statement that they were to change their name, but that is nowhere near enough. I have benefited from systemic racism by being white and silence is complicity. I have been listening and learning and reflecting and I’m going to keep doing so.
I walked from the empty plinth towards the harbour, to the spot where Colston went splash and had a good chuckle at the sheer swagger and determination it took to roll the statue that far. Well done. There is so much more Bristol needs to do. It is a very divided and segregated city, both racially and economically and all of us have responsibility to see that that changes, but for the first time in a long time I felt stirrings of something that felt a little like hope.
Buoyed by the excitement I went over to Society Cafe, which was open for takeway in a socially distanced way. I ordered a coffee and a brownie. I will sit by the harbour and enjoy these I thought. A tiny slice of something approaching normal life. I’d taken one bite and it started to rain, hard. I dived under a tree with my waterproof on but still was soaked to the skin. I had to laugh and enjoy the moment for what it was. It has been 12 weeks of not feeling the wind in my hair, nor the rain on my skin, or the simple pleasure of a walk into town to get a coffee. Whatever weather was thrown at me it was better than another day indoors, alone. So I did what any self respecting weirdo like me does, I drank my soggy coffee and danced in the rain. I walked home, soaked to the skin, laughing at the irony of picking that day, that time, to end my solitude.
My route home took me down Guinea Street, currently famous for being featured on BBC2’s A House Through Time. It is a series I have loved watching anyway, but it has been extra thrilling seeing Bristol’s history told on screen these past few weeks. Knowing the house was about a mile from mine and somewhere I’d walked past dozens of times made it all the more touching and personal. I’m sure the citizens of Newcastle and Liverpool felt the same. The houses on Guinea Street, built by a slave trader, now have BLM banners in their windows and that thrilled me too.
What I love about A House Through Time is that it tells the stories of the forgotten people in history, women, working class people and black people, not the alleged great and good, but the ordinary, extraordinary people and that makes history accessible, relevant and vital to me. Bristol’s Festival of Ideas had an excellent event with the shows producer and presenter last year. I met David Olusoga afterwards (it was quite the day, let me tell you as I’d met Marcus du Sautoy on the same day). FOI had another, online event recently with David. Both are available via their website, first one is audio, second one is video, and are worth seeking out.
It stopped raining and as walked home in the sunshine, slowly drying out, I smiled. It has been a long time since I felt happy like that. Or hopeful. Or part of something bigger than myself. It felt good.