Jim Crow repainted- again…

So- another twist in the local debate about a painted rock on the Dunoon shoreline.

Photo c.1900

The rock has now been defaced twice by someone who decided that direct action was required to highlight the murky history that may be behind this local land mark. Local politicians have expressed their outrage-

Councillor Bruce Marshall, chair of the Bute and Cowal Area Committee, told the Standard on Tuesday: “I was unaware that Jim Crow had again been defaced and find it hard to believe that anyone can be so petty.
“Jim Crow has been a landmark on the foreshore at Hunter’s Quay all of my life and I would not like to see it permanently lost.”

From Dunoon Observer.

Two people were seen yesterday redecorating the rock with its golliwog face.

The local paper has dealt with the issue in a rather lazy and partisan fashion. It reads like the reporter was looking for a way to dismiss any concerns about the rock, and seeking to interpret history in this light. A quote from the article

In an age where international news was not widely spread, it is unlikely that Dunoon people knew about these laws when the rock was originally painted, possibly around 1900.

It seems more likely that the rock was originally named after a Thomas Ingoldsby rhyming story The Jackdaw of Rheims. which was popular in Victorian times, The poem, about a particularly pious jackdaw made ito a saint, ends with the stanza:

And on newly-made Saints and Popes, as you know,

It’s the custom, at Rome, new names to bestow,

So they canonized him by the name of Jim Crow!

The research the local reporter has done seems to ignore the pervasive influence of ‘coon songs‘ and ‘black face songs’ in the Victorian and Edwardian music halls (right through to the dreadful black and white minstrel shows that were on TV in the 1970’s.)

People in Dunoon, and holiday makers from the big city who flocked here around the turn of the 20th Century, probably did not know much about the Jim Crow laws, but they would have known that ‘Jim Crow’ was a derogatory caricature of a black man.

As for the Jackdaw of Rheims– written by Rev Richard H Barham (under the pen name Thomas Ingoldsby,) it makes one reference to Jim Crow- as part of a long poem about a Jackdaw. Here is the question- why did Barham use this name? The song ‘Jump Jim Crow‘ was a huge international hit, with sheet music sold over all the world- carrying the caricature everywhere it went. The song was written about 5-10 years before the Jackdaw of Rheims was published.

The Observer reporter appears to assume that before the internet, before radio and TV, communication of ideas like this between continents was unlikely- that there could be no real exchange of ideas between sleepy Dunoon and America. This is to totally misunderstand our history-

Looking back from a totally different culture and time, there is no blame that can be attached to whoever first crudely decorated this rock and wrote ‘Jim Crow’ on its side. It was probably a bit of holiday fun. Using terms and prejudices that were so pervasive that they were hardly noticed.

The issue remains how we come to understand the symbolism contained within this image now– how we engage honestly with our past.

And this rock gives us an opportunity to do just that.

I notice that the local paper did not quote this-

“… there can be no doubt that the painting of the ‘face’, with its exaggerated red mouth, is a typically caricatured image of a black person, as popularised by the American entertainer T.D. Rice in the nineteenth century. […] I feel certain that black visitorsfrom outside would see this as somewhat insulting […] as a derogatory reference to their skin colour and origins.”

Institute of Race Relations.

So –  are we sure that this is just a little bit of harmless local colour? And even if it is just that- are we really comfortable with the associations that are being made, and the offence that this might carry to the descendants of slaves who had to fight on for generations against the oppression of the Jim Crow laws?

If the rock is to stay, then we need to tell these stories.

If we are to keep the face on the rock- then let us also put a big sign on the foreshore dealing with the darker side of our past…

More stuff in our local paper…

You may well already know, dear readers, of my recent rather dramatic act of self publicism.

Following this, there was also the rather unfortunate letter published in our local paper, which categorised me as an ‘idiot’.

Today, the letters page of the good old Dunoon Observer is mostly about our family. There were three responses to the letter mentioned above- from 2 of my friends (no money exchanged hands) and also from someone I did not know. The letters bring compassion, common sense, and an understanding of the risks involved in all of life.

Even though I had taken a decision not to reply myself, and had wondered about the point of such a discourse, in the end, I am grateful that the other side of the issue has been expressed so well. Thanks guys!

Also in the paper this week I was very surprised to see a letter from my mother in law Mary!

It was a letter thanking people for their support during Robert’s (my step father in law) illness. Robert has spent weeks in hospital undergoing the first round of chemotherapy as part of the treatment for leukaemia.

What Mary’s letter was referring to was that some folk who meet to pray and talk about God-stuff at our house put together a box for Robert during his time in hospital. It contained lots of envelopes to be opened over the days and weeks he was in hospital- with poems, prayers, sweeties, dvds, books and jokes. It became a ritual for him to open the envelopes each day, and I think (and hope) it was a real blessing to him- and to Mary.

Robert was discharged from hospital on the day of opening of the last envelope. You could not make that up could you?

It makes me want to sing of the beauty of small things, and people who think that life should be about bringing joy to others in a time of great need.

Robert is due back in hospital for more treatment soon- and he is so far away from where we live, if constantly in our thought and prayers. He is probably reading this, and will protest my choice of photo!

I’ll post a better one of you Robert, taken when I next see you!

In which I am berated as an ‘idiot’…

I have been struggling a little with the publicity following my recent little mishap. For the most part, people have been polite and kind-  interested in the details, but perhaps a little switched on by the drama of it all.

Today however, in our local newspaper, a letter has been published that has a rather different tone.

The good thing about having a blog like this is that it gives me a chance to make a kind of response of a more thoughtful and considered nature.

Here is the letter in full, along with my response.


I write with anger as I note that a lone canoeist was rescued from the Clyde last week. Has he been sent the bill for the rescue? It was nobody’s fault but his own that he chose to go canoeing on his own in February weather. Why should the tax payer have to pay for this man’s folly?

Dear ‘name and address withheld’

I am sorry, but also a little puzzled, to have been the cause of your anger.

You are quite correct that I took decisions that ultimately led to an accident, and that any blame to be allocated is mine alone. However, I do not agree that these decisions amount to ‘folly’. This for the following reasons-

  • I am an experienced canoeist, who has been out on these waters many time before
  • I have never previously capsized my canoe, despite paddling in far more challenging conditions
  • The ‘February weather conditions’ you alluded to were in fact flat calm, with hardly a ripple of a wave, and the air temperature could have best been described as ‘mild’
  • I was indeed alone, but had taken the precaution of letting others know were I was going, and when I would return.
  • I stayed reasonably close to shore, and well within my comfort zone
  • I am fit, a reasonably good swimmer, wore a buoyancy aid and warm clothing that allowed free movement in the water. I was close to shore when rescued, having made good progress from the point I entered the water

I should perhaps also point out that I too am a tax payer.

When the search and rescue facilities are privatised, as your report two weeks ago said that they will be in 2011, do you think that people who choose to put themselves in danger will be rescued without receiving a hefty bill?

I hope so. The humanitarian ethos that puts the saving of life before the saving of money is one that many of us (particularly me!) would want to defend. I am very grateful to the people who rescued and looked after me, and humbled by their compassion and care.

You raise the point again of me choosing to place myself in danger. Clearly, canoeing (at any time of the year) has a degree of risk associated with it, even if this is a measured risk. It is also clear that after every accident, there are things we can learn that might help us reduce the risk, or cope better with mishaps as they befall. To this end, I have already uprated the floatation in my canoe, bought a wetsuit, flares and am considering purchasing a portable VHF radio. Whether or not these things would have prevented the accident is debatable.

The issue of risk is a difficult one.  There is risk in many activities- perhaps the most risky thing that I do is to drive around Argyll on our busy country roads. I do this because I have to as part of my job, but many of my colleagues have had serious accidents.

Many leisure pursuits have a measure of risk- cycling, climbing, hill walking, sailing etc. Those of us that do these things have a responsibility to make sensible preparations and precautions, but miss judgements and over confidence are common. At some point, many of us have accidents- most of them thankfully minor. There is a real danger that we start to see accidents as the result only of foolishness on the part of those involved. It makes the rest of us seem invulnerable, which of course, we are not. The blame game that you appear to be playing is likely to make this worse.

Does this mean we should avoid such activity? I and many others do not think so. Risk can also be a positive choice, as the alternative can lead to no life at all.

It is perhaps also worth noting the huge costs to the NHS of physical and mental health problems associated with our sedentary modern lifestyles- and the encouragement to get out into wild places as a way of reducing future health problems.

How many millions are wasted on sending helicopters up hills to collect people who think it appropriate to climb them in training shoes and t shirts?

I do not know. I suspect that you do not either. I do know that a number of people who volunteer for rescue based activities (RNLI, Coastguard, Mountain rescue) love being in the outdoors, and are enthusiastic participants in the sports that you appear to find questionable. Some of them have lost friends to accidents, or been rescued themselves, and want to give something back.

I have spent a lot of time in the mountains, and have met people who were poorly equipped. However, I have also been part of the rescue of a group of soldiers who were cragbound despite being very well prepared. In wild places, stuff happens.

Neither do I think that your analogy is a fair one. I was not wearing a t shirt, nor was I wilfully reckless or inexperienced.

Helicopters can only be in one place at a time and while they are engaged in the rescue of an idiot, they cannot be available to rescue people who are in difficulty through no fault of their own.

I may be an idiot- but given that (I assume) we have never met, I think your assessment of my character is presumptive. Even if you are right, do you think that we ‘idiots’ are better left to drown? My family and friends might disagree.

Are we more deserving of rescue if victims of blind chance rather than personal failure? In a car accident for example, should we first save the victim, or the person whose mistake caused the accident in the first place?  Who decides?

It might be interesting to note that the helicopter that rescued me was a Royal Navy unit, that was already on a search and rescue exercise two miles up the Clyde. In this, I was very fortunate, and am very aware that I was the centre of great expense.

Finally ‘name and address withheld’, I would like to say this. I am not sure what activities help bring meaning to your life, but it may well be that at some point in the future, you too are faced with a situation for which you were not prepared- perhaps even because of a mistake that you make. I hope that this never happens  but it is also possible that you may then require the help of emergency services.

If such a thing should befall you, I hope that you are treated with the compassion and care that you have failed to show to me.

By way of postscript, today I was in a local shop, and a woman took it upon herself to call me an idiot to my face, and to say that she very much agreed with the comments made in the local paper by ‘name and address withheld’.

I was a little stunned, but managed to ask her why she thought that saving my life was a waste of the time of emergency services, and why she thought that I had behaved like an idiot. I was able to explain a little of the circumstances of the accident, and the nature of the weather conditions (which she assumed were the cause of the accident.) She huffed and puffed a little, but conceded that there must be another side to the story. We parted smiling, albeit through clenched teeth.

Such is life in small communities.

I make the local newspaper…

Gulp- my recent little swim made front page of the Dunoon observer.

Here is a photo someone took- I am out of view behind the police launch.

Michaela and I took a trip down to the west bay this morning. We went to see David Torrance, the man who raised the alarm, and said thanks. He seems a really nice guy, and I will be forever in his debt. He was in the right place, at the right time, and did the right things.

We then went round to the Rock Cafe for breakfast, and stood watching the sun sparkling on the sea around the Gantock Rocks. It is a lovely cold sunny day today. I looked a where I entered the water and marvelled at how far I swam.

I do not plan to repeat it.