Edward Colston's statue went for a swim in Bristol docks recently. The current focus on our nation's history and its characters throws up a number of questions which need to be, and surely will be, debated. If Colston's statue is to go, what about the Colston Arms by the city's university? How about all the Lord Nelsons? Or the Black-a-Moors? And the Black's Heads?
Up here in Derbyshire we've our own bit of local controversy.
The Green Man and Black's Head (the 'Royal' bit was added after Princess, later Queen, Victoria once stopped off there in the 1830s) was an inn, or actually two inns, on St. John Street in Ashbourne. A Grade II* listed former coaching inn, the Green Man dates from the 1750s. In the 1820s the then owner bought the neighbouring property, the Black-a-Moor's Head and combined the two. The attached gallows pub sign features a black head which has become the subject of controversy in today's zeitgeist. Or at least it used to feature a black head, for it has recently been removed, ostensibly for restoration. Whether when it achieves its restored state its position will be restored we'll just have to wait and see.
I had a couple of pints in The Green Man in the autumn of 2010. It was quiet, but then it was a Monday evening. I also had a couple of pees in the Black-a-Moor's Head as that was where the loos were. The inn closed in the following year and now houses a number of retail units as well as a restaurant/bar called... The Green Man. So one name will live on, even if the black head doesn't.
A little more history. Forty-odd years ago Ricky was my jig. I was his honky. Was he offended by the term? I don't know. If he was he didn't show it. Perhaps he was just inured to it. I certainly wasn't offended by my epithet. We used to freely trade ethnophaulisms over pints of Burtonwood in the Albion or as part of some sledging in the cricket nets before the term had probably been invented. The fact that this was the summer when Michael Holding and Andy Roberts were terrorising the English batsmen and Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge were doing something similar to England's attack added a little more frisson to those sessions. I felt that I had the edge in that my forte was devasting spells of hostile bowling as opposed to Ricky's which was a mix of little leggies and googlies. Was that an imbalance of power, I wonder?
I ate with Ricky and his family when visiting him in Barking. We'd then go on to the Short Blue for a pint of Ruddles and the inevitable thrashing on the pool table. Ricky had a terrific cueing arm. Years passed. Paths parted. I haven't seen Ricky for many, many a year. The last I heard of him he was a professor at some university across the pond. He is now just a part of my history.
The Short Blue is also history. Built in the 1950s it stood on Bastable Avenue, but was closed and boarded-up by 2008. It was finally flattened sometime between 2012 and 2014 with plans to build flats on the site approved.
I remember the pub name as my hometown of Gorleston also had/has a Short Blue. Both were named after the Short Blue fishing fleet which was based in Barking but operated from Great Yarmouth in the herring season. The Norfolk one had been a bygone boozer for several years at the time I visited its namesake but later reopened and is still operating.
Were I to be standing in the Albion today, hobnobbing with Ricky over pints of Hobgoblin, which is what it seems the place serves now, would we still be jig and honky? Although I've read somewhere that 'one saves one's choicest pieces of abuse for one's favourite team', almost certainly not. Times change. Things change. History's story changes. Each generation views history through the eyes of its experiences, in the light of increasing amounts of evidence. Should Colston's statue or Ashbourne's black head eventually be reinstated? It's not down to me. It's down to all of us. Whatever happens, someone won't agree. Plenty of folk won't agree. If history academics from the BAME community can't agree...
One thing that might need to be looked at is our education system. I recall a tale told to me by a teacher who'd been teaching about the slave trade for a lesson or two. Winston, whose west African roots were pretty self-evident, piped up, "Miss. Were these slaves black then?"
History isn't just black or white, there's plenty of shades of grey. Not to mention a bit of green and blue.
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