Reading and freedom

Open book with quote from Frederick Douglass: ‘Once you learn to read you will be forever Free.’

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery to become a famous abolitionist and social reformer in the United States. He became known for his powerful oratory and writing, including his bestselling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. This is available for free download, in a number of formats, from Project Gutenberg.

You can find more inspirational quotes in my post Looking for a Little Inspiration?

Supporting Learning: a sci-fi / fantasy writing pack

Who writes the future? is a creative writing resource for schools from the Bodleian Libraries. Based on materials and activities used in a Summer School writing course, I developed this pack into a workshop for visiting schools. Drawing on lessons learned from these workshops, the pack is now available for free download from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage.

Image from the  Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage
Link to the resource from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage


The original course was the brainchild of researcher Jacob Ward and a project in public engagement with research. A group of fifteen young people explored speculative writing from the past and learned about current research in computing at the University of Oxford before developing their own stories under the guidance of author Jasmine Richards. They also worked with illustrator Nurbanu Asena who developed a striking image to accompany each story. Their work was published in an anthology, a PDF version of which is included in the pack. My role was to plan, facilitate and evaluate the project.

Developing a writing resource

The summer school achieved all its original aims successfully, but we wanted to ensure that the format and resources we had produced would help young writers beyond the original group. We first developed a workshop in which visiting school groups developed one aspect of the original five-day course. This was usually conceiving a story idea, world building, or developing a central character. The process of drafting and revision could then be continued back at school.

These workshops also helped me to develop the resources from a series of individual elements into a coherent pack. I used the feedback from visiting groups to refine some of the elements. These refinements included clearer definition of the elements in world building, redesigning the character template, and explaining other sections more clearly. I also produced a set of teacher notes to assist those using the pack in class or in a writing group.


The resource pack includes the following elements:

  • Teacher notes
  • Student Booklet, designed to be printed as an eight-page A4 booklet.
  • Historical examples of speculative fiction, written at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries and including predictions made about our present.
  • The Who Writes the Future? anthology produced by the young writers in the original summer school.

Student writing pack

The student booklet takes students through seven steps, culminating in a first draft of their short story:

  1. Decide on a specific setting. Start to build a world for the story.
  2. Select your story idea / concept. Students are asked to think about the particular impact of a technology, but taking this ‘hard sci-fi’ approach is not essential.
  3. Select a theme. There is a list of suggestions but students may wish to choose another.
  4. Decide on the point of view, i.e. first, second or third person narrative.
  5. Develop your character. A template is included to help students think about the central character(s) in their story.
  6. Outline your story. Students are encouraged to plan an outline before writing their first draft.
  7. Write your story. We have included a few lined pages.

I hope the pack will prove as successful for school classes and writing groups as it has been in our workshops. I’d love to hear feedback from teachers who have used it. If you have enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in my other posts on Supporting Learning.

Supporting Learning: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

One event that had become a regular feature of the schools’ education programme at the Bodleian Libraries is the annual study day for A Level English Literature students studying Chaucer.

It hasn’t been possible to a physical event this year, so the event will move online. This has allowed us to explore ways in which the event can be accessible to a greater range of schools, beyond those who can make the journey to Oxford.

We are adopting a blended approach of asynchronous and synchronous learning. Students will be able to access recorded resources at any time, in preparation for a live Q&A event with specialist academics.

The first elements are recordings of two talks by lecturers which we have made available on the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers web pages. Dr Nicholas Perkins discusses how understanding medieval books and the interpretation of texts in Chaucer’s time can help to deepen our reading of Chaucer’s work. Dr Marion Turner explores Chaucer’s tale collection genre and its social, political, and poetic contexts. Both talks include closed captions.

I hope these will be useful to those teaching or learning about the Canterbury Tales. As always, I welcome constructive comments, so do let me know what you think.

If you liked these resources, you might also be interested in my post on the history of medicine.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 8

For Diverse Book Week this year, I have been reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explained why I chose this book at the start of the week. This is my concluding update. I know a week doesn’t have 8 days, but I needed a little longer to finish! You can catch up with my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 7.

The final chapters of the book take us from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. This was a period of huge social change in Britain and themes that run through this section are a nation uncertain of its identity in the light of these changes, and differing views among individuals about what it means to be British.

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of social Darwinism and other ‘scientific’ approaches to ‘race’. As a biologist, I find this an extremely uncomfortable aspect of scientific history. There is no biological basis for the assertion that there are different races within humanity, yet this period saw many applying dubious methods to make not just that claim, but that some races were superior to others. Unsurprisingly, the purveyors of such ideas placed themselves at the top of any supposed hierarchy.

This came to a head in horrific enactment of eugenic policies in Nazi-occupied areas before and during the Second World War. Because the horrors of the holocaust turned the world against such ideas, it is now easy to forget how prevalent they were beforehand, both in Europe and the United States. This resulted in vicious forms of discrimination based on entirely false ideas and was often used as a justification for prejudiced views. The horror with which many British people reacted to the prejudice of white American GIs against their black comrades is particularly well recounted. It is evident that what induced the most aggressive response among these racists was the prospect of inter-racial sexual relations, an irrational fear based in the ridiculous notion of ‘racial purity’.

Sadly, while British citizens may have deplored the violence Black GIs were subjected to, it is clear that in post-war Britain many held the view that children of mixed parentage were somehow inferior and ‘neither one thing nor the other’. This, despite the long history of intermarriage both in Britain and throughout territories under her influence. Such views were rooted in the same irrational pseudoscience of race originally constructed to justify the exploitation of black populations. While it’s clear that only a minority of The British population held prejudiced views, its also apparent that, for too long, a much larger group was not prepared to contest them.

In the light of the long history covered in this book, the struggle for equality in the post war period, which still continues, can be seen not only in the context of contemporary issues such as employment or the influence of individual politicians, but also as the resolution to the various legacies of our past. It seems that both politicians and sections of the populace seemed genuinely surprised that black people of the Empire/commonwealth should want to live in Britain. The subsequent response to that wish in immigration law, employment, Education, social segregation, and day-to-day prejudice (not to mention hate crime perpetrated by extreme right-wing organisations) created a long-standing wound in British society.

That wound is evident now. Those living in substandard and disgracefully unsafe housing of the type that led to the Grenfell fire are more likely to be from BAME groups. These same groups are more likely to be employed in medical and caring roles at the forefront of tackling COVID-19, and at the same time more likely to succumb to it.

I hope it is not too optimistic to think that the current Black Lives Matter protests offer us all an opportunity for real lasting change. Looking back over almost 2000 years of history as this book does, it seems clear that the vibrant mix of ethnicities and cultures we see in modern Britain is exactly the joyous outcome we should expect to result from our history. The fact that so many still see Britain as a land of opportunity is something we should celebrate.

Black and British: A Forgotten History has shown me that it’s time to remember our history, both it’s courageous highlights and it’s more uncomfortable truths, in order that we can at last shuffle off the vestiges of myth, propaganda and prejudice from the past that too often hold us back from building our future.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 7

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6.

On the last day of Diverse Book Week 2020, Sunday 14 June, I read chapter 8 which looks at the activity of the Royal Navy, in particular the West Africa Squadron, to tackle slave trading from the coast of West Africa. This day is also the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, and I read the book with the prayers, thoughts and music from the live-steamed anniversary service to commemorate the 72 victims of that tragic event still resonating in my mind.

Prof. Olusoga gives a lively and well-sourced account of the actions of the West Africa Squadron, as well as the various ruses that slave traders used to evade their attentions. I particularly liked the extended direct quotes from accounts of the time.

Some of the key protagonists have a similar ambiguity surrounding their role as the historical figures I mentioned in my last update. In this case, Lord Palmerston was a prime mover in the efforts to tackle slave trading at its source. This stands in historical contrast to his record of colonialism: a champion of freedom from slavery, but only under British rule and in the British interest. In the current climate of change, the underlines the need to reassess the record of many of the historical figures of this age.

The chapter relates one of the main criticisms of the British efforts against slave trading at this time, that it was under resourced and half-hearted. While the crews and their commanders made great efforts and secured notable successes, the ships of the West Africa Squadron were few in number, old, often in poor repair and technologically outclassed by those of the slave traders.

Others may regard this as a non sequitur, but I couldn’t help make the comparison with the modern world. In the same way that a public commitment was made to ending the slave trade, but then hobbled by underfunding, so too have many of our post-war aspirations been thwarted. Then and now, the consequences of this are felt not by the decision makers, but the most vulnerable. Two of the tangible outcomes of the Beveridge Report, and the post-war consensus were the foundation of the NHS and the largest social housing building programme in British history. Subsequent lack of investment and cost-cutting have sadly caused huge damage.

In the face of the pandemic, and despite warnings, our healthcare system was underprepared and under resourced. The Grenfell fire resulted in tragedy because cost-cutting resulted in inferior – and lethal – cheap cladding materials were used and warnings were ignored by local authority officials. In both cases the group that has been most vulnerable, and has suffered most, is the one which has been subject to prejudice, denied opportunity, and held back economically – the BAME community.

Sunday was the last day of Diverse Book Week, but I finished the final chapters of the book in the following week. You can read my final update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

In this post, I’m thinking about my reading of chapter 7 which considers moves by abolitionists to tackle slavery in the United States, following their successes in doing so first within Britain, and then British territories overseas. if the need for a better understanding of history needed emphasising, current events couldn’t make the point better. The media on Saturday was full of stories of protest. While hundreds of thousands of people took part in peaceful Black Lives Matters protests in UK cities, towns and villages, a few hundred fascists (I think that’s what an ‘anti-anti fascist’ is) ‘defended’ monuments in London by giving Nazi salutes, chanting ‘we’re racist and that’s the way we like it’ and attacking the police.

While the abolitionists threw themselves into this new challenge, American plantation owners were not going to relinquish their lucrative businesses without a fight. At the same time that former slaves, and enslaved Americans toured Britain relating tales of the violence and brutality of those plantations (to considerable effect), other lobbyists were portraying them as inferior.

These twin messages inter played in the already ambiguous attitudes among the white British public, even among some of the abolutionists, some of whom viewed slavery as morally reprehensible, but also preferred to see former slaves as passive beneficiaries of their goodwill, rather than active agents in their own emancipation. Prof. Olusoga cites Charles Dickens as an example: a passionate advocate of abolition but finding people of colour so distasteful that he actually tore out a portrait of Frederick Douglass from the autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, that he was sending to a friend in support of that cause.

Other ambiguities existed, and persisted into the twentieth century, in forms such as minstrelsy, which became hugely popular among the Victorians, and the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. Minstrels introduced Victorian England to songs and music derived from the plantations of the southern US states, but also grossly parodied the supposed voices, mannerisms and behaviour of black Americans and served to denigrate them. The best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved a powerfully persuasive in conveying the brutal reality of the lives of slaves, but portrayed the central character as passive in the face of them.

While slave owners were unsuccessful in convincing the public of their incredible claim that Africans were actually better off enslaved the underlying message of inferiority in many ways aligned with the abolitionists portrayal of a people needing to be ‘rescued’ by white philanthropy. This was despite the many examples of equality of intellect and ability, provided by those former slaves campaigning for their cause.

I wonder if there is a parallel here with modern charitable giving? Victorian abolutionists sometimes raised money to free individual slaves (and the government had compensated British slave owners in 1833) delivering undoubted immediate benefit to those individuals, but risking the reinforcement of the very system they sought to end. Modern charitable campaigns often present Africans as passive victims of famine or disease, in need of the benevolence of ‘white saviours’. When we give to such campaigns we too undoubtedly provide immediate respite, but do we also reinforce damaging stereotypes? How often do we tackle the underlying causes, which lie in long-standing global iniquity?

You can read the day 7 update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 4.

This post is about Chapter 6 in which Prof. Olusoga covers the campaign for the abolition of slavery in Britain which finally led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and the eventual ending of slavery in British territories in 1833.

Like most other people in Britain, I was aware of the history of the abolitionist cause and the role of figures such as William Wilberforce. What I did not realise was the extent to which that narrative, which I would say is part of Britain’s National ‘legend’ in the twenty-first century, has been shaped not by the actual events, but rather by narratives of them written afterwards, including, notably, by Wilberforce’s own sons.

This has resulted on a focus on a single campaigner, to the exclusion of other key figures and events. These include the accounts of former slaves, those who had formerly worked in the trade, women, and that of slave protests and uprisings in the Caribbean. Once again, this book has filled in some of the gaps left by my formal school education in the 1970s and 1980s.

Former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were able to give powerful accounts of their own experience which proved highly effective in swaying both public and political opinion. They and the group they founded, The Sons of Africa, cast light on a trade whose most brutal aspects were out of the public gaze on the western shores of Africa and other side of the Atlantic. First hand accounts coupled with physical evidence such as shackles and plans of slave decks could not be refuted by slave traders and investors.

The pivotal role of women Such as Elizabeth Heyrick in the abolitionist campaign is also made clear. Women’s groups were often more radical than their male peers, often seeking immediate abolition rather than the gradual approach promoted my the most prominent male figures in the movement, or even giving open support to slave uprisings on plantations. While politically disenfranchised, women played a key role in campaigns such as the sugar boycott.

Protests and uprisings by increasingly informed, literate, and connected slaves communities in Caribbean plantations also played a huge role. The successful uprising in Haiti led by Toussaint Louverture and the brutal oppression of a slave strike in Jamaica made military support of slavery increasingly untenable and helped sway public opinion towards the abolitionist cause. In the end, freedom from slavery was not so much ‘given’ but demanded and achieved by the enslaved.

It struck me that a further factor which the book repeatedly mentions, but has not so far focussed on, is literacy. Whether as a crucial factor in the emancipation of a single individual such as Jonathan Strong, or as the crucial factor in enabling the idea of freedom to spread within and between slave communities, it seems to me that literacy was a central factor. Through literacy, Informations and ideas as disparate as Thomas Paige’s The Rights of Man, British parliamentary proceedings, and the evangelical baptist Gospel message contributed to the end of slavery in British territories.

You can read the Day 6 Update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 4

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

In this update, I’m considering Chapter 5 which covers the period of the American War of Independence, which saw Black soldiers fighting on both sides, and its aftermath.

This isn’t an area of history I knew much about. What struck me most about the war was the way that British commanders encouraged slaves to escape to become enlisted soldiers in the British ranks or auxiliary workers. This wasn’t for reasons of principle or morals but rather as a military strategy. This seemed however to further incense slave-owning revolutionaries who saw no irony in complaining of taxation without representation as a form of ‘slavery’ while relying on slave labour themselves.

In a book which catalogues many horrors. Nevertheless, I was still shocked to read of the betrayal of these black loyalists by British commanders at the siege of Yorktown when they were forcibly evicted to face the mercy of their former owners in the attacking revolutionary army.

Not all the British commanders acted in this way, however, and at the end of the war, hundreds of former slaves travelled from British-occupied Manhattan to Nova Scotia and Britain, some of them who had been owned by George Washington, sailing away almost as their former master marched his troops the length of the Island.

The presence of these exiled and impoverished former colonial slaves who had fought for Britain provided an embarrassing reminder of defeat on the streets of London. Prof. Olusoga tells the tale of the mix of charity and criminality, good intentions and incompetence that let to the eventual settlement of the community that became Freetown in Sierra Leone. I’d been aware of it’s origins in the broadest of brushstrokes, but not the tortuous, and often tragic, journey to its foundation.

What is apparent from this section of the book is the readiness of the white establishment to use People of Colour, whether slave or free, to further their own economic, military or political ends. Even the most well intentioned protagonists, advocates of the abolition of slavery and equal rights under law seem happy to recruit black Britons to help further their cause, but it never occurs to them give them authority, even when they might be in the best position to lead others.

More than a little interesting too that what was perhaps the first Black British community was founded on the shores of West Africa, and within a stone’s throw of the most infamous of slave fortresses, Bunce Island.

You can read the Day 5 update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post on why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

In this update I’m covering chapters 3 and 4 which focus on the Georgian period. Much of the wealth in this period is generated from the production and trade of commodities such as tobacco and sugar which were produced by slave labour.

What struck me is that compared to the legalised brutality in British Caribbean colonies, where black slaves had replaced white indentured labourers, were regarded as chattels and afforded no rights, the position of those arriving in Britain was more ambiguous. There was clearly slavery, but also black servants, and others whose status seems unclear. While most of the black population lived in servitude, and the fear of being sold into slavery, some were free and a few achieved considerable status in society.

Attitudes towards black people also varied considerably. While there was some racial abuse and few could aspire to become financially independent, there does not seem to have been widespread animosity. Black and white people worked together, lived together, intermarried and had children.

The legal status of slavery was uncertain and Professor Olusoga points out that slave traders and those whose fortunes rested on slave labour considered that experiences of relative freedom in Britain, compared with the many summary brutal punishments in the colonies might serve to spread dissent if the two groups met – not that this stopped them enslaving black Britons when they could.

At the same time, attempts to settle the legal status of black British residents, by seeking to establish that slavery was illegal (within Britain) represented a threat to those with a financial interest in slavery. Cases such as Granville Sharp’s legal battles to demonstrate the status of individuals such as Jonathan Strong and James Somerset as free men were pivotal in advancing this cause. The latter became what Prof. Olusoga aptly describes as ‘a proxy war between the West India Interest… and humanitarians’ which he covers in a gripping section of chapter 4 that had me on the edge of my seat!

The response of slave traders was to campaign against equal legal status of black people living in Britain by drawing on the worst aspects of myth and fiction about Africa and Africans that had developed in previous centuries. The eventual judgement in favour of Somerset caused reverberations not only in Britain, but across the Atlantic. It seems that here lie the roots of some longstanding prejudices; their basis the desire of slavers, and those profiting from slave labour, to preserve their vested interests by maintaining the status of people as mere property on the basis of the colour of their skin.

You can read the day 4 update here.