Behind the Eye a Star

“We know that in September we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.” Henry Rollins

Pinch, punch, first of the month – no returns (unless you really feel like it, and if you do, please be my guest).

T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month (I always struggled with the Waste Land and Thomas Stearns Eliot for that matter), but for me it has always been the bittersweet, crepuscular encroachment of September that jolts my soul back to reality after the summer’s reveries. School starting, nights drawing, leaves falling, cold enshrouding  ,shadow-forming September; the start of the long road to winter. The end of the golden road to unlimited devotion. It must have felt like this in San Francisco, as 1967 rolled in to 1968 or as Hunter Thompson said in the extraordinary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

To ready myself for the joys of September to come, I thought I’d share with you all some of my favourite September songs, please feel free to add songs that mean as much to you.


David Sylvian – September

Wistful simplicity

The sun shines high above
The sounds of laughter
The birds swoop down upon
The crosses of old grey churches
We say that we’re in love
While secretly wishing for rain
Sipping coke and playing games
September’s here again
September’s here again

The Field Mice – September’s not so far away

Captivating, mellifluous fragility

Green Day – Wake Me up When September Ends

Stone cold classic

Earth Wind & Fire – September

They’ve got da funk

Big Star – September Gurls

The never-ending genius that is Alex Chilton and the song that started the train of thought that started this post.

Have a beautiful day and a beautiful September. Peace.


Sample it, Loop it, F*ck it, & Eat it

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‘Who the fuck wears deck shoes and tucks pressed pastel shirts into pressed pastel short slacks? For fuck’s sake! This isn’t a fucking Prep School away day to fucking Cowes, you wankers,’ Rhian stage whispered, looking beyond the objects of her ire. Her face puckered into a facsimile of childhood. The men clinked glasses of gins and tonics – a slice of lime fell to the ground between them – and laughed with mile long stares. Dead behind the fucking eyes; not so alive in front either. Rhian smoothed her Pop Will Eat Itself tee shirt, faded through infrequent washing since 1987; now more rock burns than material. Sample it, Loop it, Fuck it, & Eat it. Rhian lit another cigarette, slugged from her bottle of (rum and) cola, scanned the beer garden again, and favourited another tweet. The Pastels had pissed off. Above her, vapour trails crosshatched the honeyed sky; dissolute pigeons dropped their lunches in pints, on shirts, on tables. Supposed to be lucky. ‘Is it fuck!’ she said.

Rhian looked about the beer garden (Patio Terrace) to her left and scanned three hundred and sixty degrees. Two women, their twenties some summers passed, stood behind her, now: Louis Vuitton bags – fresh from the midweek market on their crooked arms – as authentic as their bottled tans. They stood, opposite hips thrust out and forwards, legs crossed so their little toes met, puckering, and not speaking. Life imitating life. Do they know each other? They were each holding mobile phones in their left hands and unlit fags in the other; somehow searching their bags, for lighters probably. Two men – sun’s out guns out – slouched yards from them, watching them, smoking Lambert and Butlers. Neither offered a light. What a lovely dance. Rhian watched the men watching the women watching the men. Phones stayed silent, so no one spoke. Have they known each other?


Deiniol came through the patio door waving at her, unsmiling. He sat down, took out his phone, and sent a text. ‘You all right? Not late am I? I’ll be with you now,’ he said not looking at her. ‘How’s Agatha?’ Rhian could hear the discordant tapping.

‘My aunt? She’s fine. What’s it to you?’ Rhian put down her half-finished pint of Cwrw Haf, stood, bouffed her hair again, and pouted. Winking daisies swayed in the half-filled carafe on the table between them. As she walked towards a table, twelve feet away, Deiniol eyed her disappearing arse, tremulous on unaccustomed heels, swaying over to the table twelve feet away. He smiled, took out a second phone from his breast pocket, and scrolled through a day’s text messages. Rhian stopped, pouted anew, twirling her hair, and thrust her breasts towards two men, pinstripe-suited, Brogue-booted, with open necked shirts, and scrubland chests. Uniforms uniform.

‘Yeah, sorry babes, yeah, I’d love to chat, yeah, but I’m just making money. Doing a bit of business, yeah,’ said pinstripe number one, slicking back his thinning hair with yellowing fingers, grinning at his pinstriped brethren, and winking at her. Ash dropped from his cigarette into his pint.

‘That pocket square looks shit,’ Rhian said to pinstripe number two, standing taller now. ‘Is it your nan’s tea cosy?’

Their voices carried across the shaded patio. ‘What’s she on about Dai?’ pinstripe number two said, looking at nobody, but noticing Deiniol for the first time. Deiniol had recognised him some minutes earlier and was smiling, chuckling into the ether of the springtide sunshine. Deiniol couldn’t be arsed to rescue her. He would let this one play out. He looked at his phone, properly this time, and saw the message from Rhian at 19.30 the previous evening. He clicked the home button without reading it and lit his first cigarette of the day. His official first cigarette. Deiniol had told Rhian, had told everybody that he was giving up, had given up, and was now a ‘non-smoker.’ He liked the idea, but couldn’t be bothered with the pretence. He would leave that to Rhian; she seemed to be doing well enough. He put down his phone and lit another cigarette, zeroing smoke rings through smoke rings.

‘Always good to see you babes, been too long, yeah,’ pinstripe number one said turning, his grey chest hair like an unused Brillo pad, ‘I’ve just got to finish up here, then I’ll be over in ten, yeah.’ He pointed at an invisible watch and winked at her. He pulled down his sleeve. More ash fell into his pint. ‘You here on your own?’

‘Might be,’ Rhian said, heels clacking on cobbles, as she walked back to Deiniol, but did not sit.

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Namaste (or body and mind aligned)

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Cardiff, United Kingdom 2015

Rhian practiced yoga and meditated twice daily. She had always had difficulty focusing. Trying to remember things was even more difficult. Remembering was harder. A’ Levels – where dates and times, learned by rote, mattered less than analysis and understanding – were easy. Straight A’s – not that it mattered. Rhian analysed and evaluated like the last Freudian disciple. She had never understood if she understood anything, but kept on searching. For what? She didn’t know. She knew that she knew nothing, but was never sure how much more there was to know, or if she could know any of it. St. Mungo’s High School had invested what little capital they could spare in their present and future hope. Rhian had failed all her GCSE’s at first attempt; they were supposedly the easy option. Her teachers could not look at her. They had put cold arms round her and dredged up platitudes, but they could not look at her. She had passed the three Ordinary Levels and one Advanced Ordinary Level that she had sat a year early.


Rhian got straight A’s at second sitting, having committed innumerable facts and formulae, dates and durations, to her short term memory and regurgitated them in the Sports Hall and the ill-stocked library’s annexe. Perspiration headlocked inspiration; the cerebral cauterised. Each set of exams mattered more, but mattered less as time drifted behind her. Rhian needed to remember, wanted to pinpoint what she had seen and heard and touched, mould it, and translate it all into what she knew, but the yawning gaps remained.


Rhian yawned a lot. She could remember the names of Henry VIII’s wives in order and their means of death – Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived – what use were they to her? Rhian had learned nothing of slavery, nor of who she was, not that it mattered then. What use was a long-term memory or the formula for calculating a quadratic equation? The past ever there and gone, like a phantasm, ever tantalising. Rhian could adequately misremember quotes from Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. Often together: ‘All morons hate you when you call them moronic, it’s just like when people say…[N]igger-lover is just one of those words that don’t mean nothing – like snotty face. Stupid people use them.’ Rhian quoted a lot. She thought that people thought she was interesting. Knowledge by osmosis. Rhian found everyone dull beyond, her over-quoted, misquoted, words. Being interesting – more importantly, not being boring – mattered to Rhian, much more than missed deadlines and accurately transcribed interviews. Rhian could take or leave being interested.



The present mattered to Rhian, but she couldn’t remember it, because she hardly lived it. She lived out of it. Rhian lived in moments, unlinked, standalone, solitary. There were always gaps between moments, moments between thoughts but no thoughts between actions. Rhian had first noticed the gaps, or the rule proving exception, when she had gone to review Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci at the Princess Charlotte for her column in the Union Newspaper, ‘Seen, Live, and Gigging (Slag).’ Rhian had seen the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy the previous evening and had taken her usual going out mix of a gramme of speed and three lines of coke. She could always rely on Swifty for Class A’s, if for little else. Rhian felt alive even though she had not slept. A day’s drinking in the Student Union (Mandela) Bar and she was ready for the interview. Two grammes of Base Speed that night and another three lines of Charlie to sort her out and she was ready.

Hyperion to a satyr

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As the first bead of sweat snaked its way from forehead to nose, Agatha shifted her rimless glasses and stared into the sun. She turned off Halifax Street into Wilberforce Terrace and into Bonadies Supermarket. Agatha walked along the tinned fruit aisle, past the end of the dried goods and alcohol, to the small coffee point tucked in the coolest corner of the store. You couldn’t see it from the street. Only one person in front of her, fiddling in her handbag for change. The man behind the counter wiped his hands on his shirt-jac, raised his eyebrows at Agatha, and kissed his teeth. Agatha’s father made shirt-jacs every day. She recognised the style. He called them guayabera. She didn’t know why.

‘Stewps, you na wan fi make a decision before you get here? Just get out your money and I’ll pour you di drink. Come on na man, cyarn you see I have people fi serve. Dese is busy people, dey cyan wait all day for you. Stewps.’ He raised his left eyebrow and kissed his teeth at the woman, still searching for change. Four more people stood behind Agatha shaking their heads, sucking their teeth. The woman found the correct change, took her tea, and sat down on a raised bench by the open window.


Agatha got out a one Eastern Caribbean Dollar note from her purse in readiness and nodded at the man wiping his hands across his trousers. ‘Can I have some tea, please?’ Agatha smiled at him.

‘You na got no change!’

‘If I had change I would give it to you,’ Agatha said holding out the note.

‘Stewps. Put it on the counter dere so,’ he had his hands in his pockets and his face like, ‘Who shit dere?’

The man wiped the back of his hand across his glistening forehead and across his pale blue shirt-jac – the colour of the skies Agatha had seen in postcards from England – before pouring water from a steaming urn into a large steel kettle. ‘Condensed or carnation milk?’ Before she could answer, he poured condensed milk into a metal cup, and swilled the tea before tipping the pot.’ He picked up the note, held it up to the light before putting it in the till and counting out the change. He dropped it on the counter between them, ignoring Agatha’s outstretched hand.

‘Tank you,’ Agatha said scooping up the change into her purse without checking it, ignoring the rasping of teeth from behind the ring-marked counter. She took her tea to the scuffed wooden bench by the window. Generations of lovers had scratched their names. She wanted a piece of sugar cake, but couldn’t face the confrontation again. Kingstown went about its leisurely, sweaty business. Men in shirts and ties, schoolchildren kicking stones, and women with provisions in bags and on their heads crisscrossed in front of her. People said, ‘Good morning,’ stopped to talk, then scurried or ambled on to whatever came next. Faces insolently familiar, unfamiliar, watched through the shop window. Agatha, put down her tea and looked in her bag for the Book of Psalms. She just caught a blur of khaki, shirt-jac, and sandals, as a man with a white streak in his side-parted afro sprinted past. Nobody sprints in the midday sunshine. Agatha’s eyes followed him as he stopped, twenty yards from her, sprinted up a side alley and then thirty seconds later walked back past her to his blue Ford Anglia parked outside the Trans Caribbean Traders hardware store.


Coming from the opposite direction, Roslyn ran past the supermarket window in her best dress and white sandals, her straightened hair, earlier in a beehive, now strayed behind her. Her white dress, pristine twenty-five minutes ago, now creased and stained, her sandals scuffed and dirty. As she ran past, a clip fell from her hair to the ground. Noticing or not she kept running. Agatha called out to her, but she didn’t break stride, turn, or stop.

‘Roslyn. Roslyn. Where you going? You just dropped your clip on the ground deh.’ Agatha said as she watched Roslyn pick up speed, until she passed the Butcher’s shop and was out of sight. Roslyn left her tea, and ran back round the supermarket to the front door. Two women with Victorian perambulators were blocking it, discussing the lightness of their babies’ skin and just how knowing they were. Agatha stage coughed and said, ‘Excuse me please.’

The two women ignored her and talked about the rudeness of some nappy-headed gyal. Agatha patted down her hair. ‘Excuse me!’ Agatha said again and pushed past them into the lunchtime-thronged street. The women stared through her, questioning her manners and her parentage. Agatha saw the clip, a bow in gold-coloured metal and red plastic, bent down to retrieve it, but it was lost in the surging crowd, kicked about like a tin can on the way home from school. She saw it again. A man in a blue shirt-jac picked it up and pocketed it. Among the crowd of legs and shoes and bags, she recognised Scrampie’s khaki legs and bare feet weaving through the traffic jam of humanity. As Agatha got up a knee glanced her right temple and she fell to the ground, grazing her knee and tearing her dress. Agatha was twenty-three, but she would be in all kinds of trouble when she got home. She could hear the echoes of her stepmother’s homily about pride and the Lord and respect and, words, more words, and fists, the strap she always kept by her side, and blood. Agatha would mend and wash it before anyone knew. The crowd was no more and Agatha rose slowly, trying to get back her wind, trying to focus on breathing, direction, and the road ahead of her. After three attempts, Agatha was on her feet, dusting down her dress, the rip was wider than she had thought and had torn through her slip. Agatha walked up the street, and when she could trust her balance, started out at a light trot and ran, ran past shops and people, past signs and signifiers. Agatha ran towards home. Home for now, but that would change. Wales would be different.

Insight (in mind)

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When he had turned the corner, Scrampie straightened himself up. Out of sight, out of mind, his mother always said. He never wanted to be out of Miss Evans’s mind, but knew that there were more pressing things ahead. The Dancehall would wait, but would Agatha Evans. He had heard that she was going over to England. He would have to be quick. As he climbed the hill, and Pastor Evans’s Tailoring shop skulked into view, he started running, until at full pelt, he dipped like a sprinter reaching the entrance.

‘Boy, you late again,’ Pastor Evans said, looking up from his sewing machine, checking the clock above the front door. ‘How many times must me tell you that you start work at midday? Twelve o’clock. So, me does need you here at twelve, boy. Twelve. You hear me? Father Cuthbert Brown did need his suit thirty minutes back. I told you yesterday. Take it up the cathedral, now, and come back straight. I have something I need you fi do for me,’ Pastor Evans pointed at the brown checked suit he had made before Father Brown had left for England. It fitted him properly then.

‘I did see your daughter at de Nursing Agency, just now.’ Scrampie said, standing by the door; suit in hand, but disinclined to move.

‘I haven’t got time to talk about Agatha, and you ain’t got no time to tink about she. She na tinking bout you, Jacob,’ Pastor Evans said and waved Scrampie off again.

‘Who say I was talking about Agatha?’ Scrampie said and was gone, back down the road to the Cathedral.


 ‘That boy sweet on you Agatha,’ Roslyn said, watching Scrampie as he swayed into the road, but righted himself before a Blue Ford Anglia clipped his right leg.

‘That boy born doltish, me na bodder wid him no more. Stop smiling at me like dat so,’ Agatha said as she checked her reflection in the shop window and laughed hard.

‘You never did answer my question,’ Roslyn said looking at her wristwatch. ‘When you next have to go back to the Agency?’

‘Me seeing she again nex Tursday at half-pass-ten, but me have fi get me tests and dem and go to the Passport Office first. You have to do the same?’ Agatha relaxed Roslyn’s grip and looked back at the disappearing Cathedrals and the retreating St Vincent and the Grenadines Nursing Employment Agency, her ticket to another world. Her passport to Wales.

‘Yes. Me too, I’ll see you then. Wait, I’ll see you at Church on Sunday. Is your farder preaching? I have fi meet my mudder, now, in the market we need pick up some provision. Bye. See you Sunday morning,’ Roslyn released her hold and, without looking, crossed the road again.

‘Yes. Bye.’ Agatha Evans stood on Main Street, she would continue up Granby Street, and into Halifax Street. Who were these people they named roads for? Roslyn continued to duck in and out of Main Street’s traffic. ‘Do you want to meet up for a cup of tea before we go in…’ but Roslyn couldn’t hear her. She waved, nothing came back.

Agatha could hear Roslyn cussing the driver of a Ford Anglia as she reached the other side. Ford Anglia man, stopped, gestured at her and cussed her stink. That a man would cuss a woman so close to the Cathedral amused Agatha greatly. As he drove off, she thought she recognised him, but couldn’t think from where. It was the white streak, in his side-parted afro, she had seen somewhere. Forget about it and it will come back, she thought, as she took a last look at the Agency and trudged her twisting path home.

Wake me up when September Ends

“We know that in September we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.” Henry Rollins

Pinch, punch, first of the month – no returns (unless you really feel like it, and if you do, please be my guest).

T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month (I always struggled with the Waste Land and Thomas Stearns Eliot for that matter), but for me it has always been the bittersweet, crepuscular encroachment of September that jolts my soul back to reality after the summer’s reveries. School starting, nights drawing, leaves falling, cold enshrouding  ,shadow-forming September; the start of the long road to winter. The end of the golden road to unlimited devotion. It must have felt like this in San Francisco, as 1967 rolled in to 1968 or as Hunter Thompson said in the extraordinary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

To ready myself for the joys of September to come, I thought I’d share with you all some of my favourite September songs, please feel free to add songs that mean as much to you.


David Sylvian – September

Wistful simplicity

The sun shines high above
The sounds of laughter
The birds swoop down upon
The crosses of old grey churches
We say that we’re in love
While secretly wishing for rain
Sipping coke and playing games
September’s here again
September’s here again

The Field Mice – September’s not so far away

Captivating, mellifluous fragility

Green Day – Wake Me up When September Ends

Stone cold classic

Earth Wind & Fire – September

They’ve got da funk

Big Star – September Gurls

The never-ending genius that is Alex Chilton and the song that started the train of thought that started this post.

Have a beautiful day and a beautiful September

Sound silenced



An Unweeded Garden – Chapter 1

‘Tree-adorned mountains loom like giant watchmen posted at the gates of Paradise. The distant hills look like a weary giant lady dressed in parrot green accented with dried-brush beige She lies on the ground to rest.’

Morning in St. Vincent & the Grenadines – Stanice Anderson


Monday June 18th 1956

The rum shacks had their own codes and their own language. Buy Miss Charles a ‘petit-quart a strong rum’ (no brand, no label, no vision later) and she would tell all. The sun ever rose over Mount Soufriere, slipped away again a lifetime later over Mespo, round Crick Corner, and faded in dusk as the bats baited the fireflies and the sand-flies bit burnished flesh.

They had first met on a bucket-sweating morning in 1956 when an uprising – like the hidden sugar cane fields and Cuthbert and Clarissa’s disappearance by Black Point caves – was the talk of every pre-lunch gathering, every standpipe, but not the rum shacks. Conversation at the rum shacks never changed.

After fixing breakfast of fried spam and softbakes, scrambled eggs, and onions on the blackened gas stove, Agatha Evans made eight cups of tea with evaporated milk and four sugars each. Pastor Evans had brought up the water from the rusting pipe at Herbert Bend at four-thirty that morning. She had heard him leave, but not noted his return. He had left again at six.


She took out the flattened appointment letter from its typed, buff envelope, and read it again, memorising the journey she had practised the day before, as she had memorised the letter. Her stepmother, Maudie, was still asleep. She did not say goodbye.

Agatha Evans walked June, Nancy, Carlisle, Bernard, Josie, Isaac, and Ishmael the three miles past four rum shops, two churches, and her father’s tailors shop to St Cuthbert’s Catholic school. That day Agatha did not turn into the staff room, but walked on a further mile, skirting the Fyffe’s banana plantation and the Tate & Lyle sugar cane fields towards Kingstown. Crossing Saint David Parish into Charlotte Parish, she plucked a ripe mango and two plum roses from overhanging trees. The skins were soft, the fruit sweet. She leant forward as she ate and the juice dripped in front of her, missing her white sandals. Agatha crossed Main Street, looking to her left and right. She tripped but did not fall in front of St Vincent and the Grenadines Nursing Employment Agency, across from the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals in Kingstown. She pondered if that was the precise spot where the body and blood of Jesus transformed. No matter. Agatha grasped the brass handle with its burnt toffee patina, looked inside, but as quickly stepped back and walked across Main Street. Standing in front of ‘Big Lloyd’s Butcher,’ she saw that the carcasses still had their heads on. Agatha looked into their eyes and looked back across at the Nursing Employment Agency. Her father had slaughtered a kid four days earlier; Agatha had cooked curry goat, and rice and peas, which they would eat again that night. She had boiled mauby and ginger beer and dried sorrel – she would have to hide it away from the thirsty mouths of her siblings – and would fry plantain and roast green banana.

Agatha checked her reflection, checked the appointment letter, pursed her lips, and crossed back over Main Street, this time heading straight into the stuffy, sweaty, light-filled reception room. A singular fan sat in the far corner of the room. She gazed directly into her future.

Agatha took the only free seat in the waiting room, cross-legged she waited to be called.

“Good morning,” said a girl, similar in age, sitting cross-legged to her left, wearing a light cotton shift dress, sandals, with wide-brimmed straw hat on her lap.

“Good morning, I am Agatha. Agatha Evans.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Roslyn Jones. Wait, did I see you at de Anglican Young People Association picnic in Dubois las weeken’?” she said.

“Yes, I was deh, so. Me brudder Isaac him, was sick so me had to leave dere early so I did miss de Boilene stew and de cricket match,” Agatha said.

She looked at the desk with the brass nameplate at its front and wondered what Gillian Gayle (Matron); State Registered Nurse would be like.

“Deh did also cook up some tasti fri fowl foot,” Agatha said, looking in her bag for her kerchief as Gillian Gayle called out, ‘Roslyn Jones. Roslyn Jones.’

Roslyn smiled at Agatha, took a last look in her compact, snapped it shut in her handbag, and walked to the desk.

Agatha reread her letter, took out her book of Psalms, with its inscription marking her confirmation, and thought about Wales. She had heard of England, knew about London, but Wales. She thought about her father and her stepmother, and her sisters and brothers, the short walk to the reception desk, and the longer journey she was about to take.

‘Agatha Evans. Agatha Evans.’ A voice in front of her echoed behind her as Roslyn walked past her smiling. She winked at her.

‘I’ll be jus outside, deh,’ Roslyn said grasping the doorknob.

Agatha took out her completed application form and medical questionnaire for the Joyce Green School of Nursing. Nurse Gayle’s flickering blue eyes looked up at her then smiled and stroked her arm.

‘Please have a seat. Please do not be nervous. I am Sister Gayle and I am going to go through your application form and tell you what will happen, next. I am so pleased that you are thinking of nursing in the United Kingdom.’

‘Tank you. I mean, thank you,’ Agatha said, looking at the upside-down watch pinned to Sister Gayle’s chest.

‘How old are you Agatha?’ Sister Gale asked.

‘I did just turn, um, twenty-six. It’s on my form,’ Agatha looked at Sister Gale’s bitten fingernails. She would never let her brothers and sisters do that.

‘I know. Do you have your references?’ Sister Gale asked, smiling still.

Agatha passed over the typewritten letter from the Headmaster of St. Cuthbert’s and the sloping, handwritten script of her Parish Priest.

“I see that you are a Primary School teacher,” said Sister Gayle. “That’s good. You are used to taking care of people.”

“It is what the good Lord put me here to do,” Agatha said, trying to smile.

“Have you got brothers and sisters?” Sister Gayle asked.

“Seven,” said Agatha.

“Won’t they miss you? Won’t your mother miss you?”

“My mother passed when I was fourteen.”

Sister Gayle stroked her arm. “We must move on,” she said.

Agatha would have to have blood tests, a chest X-Ray, ECG, a full medical examination, and to get a passport.

Sister Gayle flicked through a tooled, leather-bound diary. “I will book the appointments. Come back and see me next Thursday morning at 10.30 and we will complete everything.”




Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical check-ups.’

Zadie Smith – White Teeth


Sunday May 25th 2014

On the phone, they had laughed that day as they had every Sunday for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years. Wash in the sink; they had two showers and a bath, but the sink brought Messiah Williams – Agatha Evans hadn’t taken his name and it still annoyed him – closer to God. Brush teeth and rinse twice, once with mouthwash, once with salted water. Bush tea brewed the night before. Breakfast: fried spam and softbakes, scrambled eggs and onions cooked, to within an inch, on the seven-ring range. Agatha had made it and gone back to bed. She didn’t sleep, she read instead. Agatha never ate before noon. Messiah didn’t need a list: season the pork the night before, cook for three hours on a medium high heat ready for lunch. ‘Oh, the devil will find work for idle hands to do,’ his father had told him, every day. He said it to Agatha when she sat at the backroom computer he had never used. Ironed shirt, straightened tie, brushed jacket, and polished shoes. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Church – numbers down again – the vicar was wearing jeans, so were half the congregation. Messiah had read the Old Testament Lesson, Isaiah 50: 4-7:

“The Lord GOD is my help; therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

Brixton market for fresh provisions – shops never used to open on Sundays. Pork perfect – Agatha had turned off the oven an hour before his return. She had roasted breadfruit, yams, dasheen, and plantain, mashed white sweet potato, chopped coleslaw, and boiled rice and gungo peas. Shower to wash the week away – how he missed the bite of salt on his skin – dress again, and wait for the phone. After the first ring, and before the first syllable, he was back. Back to a world where cleanliness embraced Godliness completely, to Pastor Brown preaching the damnation of every soul, bar his and those of his twenty-seven children, and to Bulky leaving.


That day, sixty years before, and twelve thousand miles away, his face reflected in polished jacket buttons, Bulky’s in mirror glass boots, he had met her. He thought of the last time she rang, checked his tie, and looked at what sixty years had brought; had bought. It was still early so he closed his bedroom door, walked past the school photographs, and opened the lounge door. He picked up Saturday’s paper, but stayed standing. He went to the bathroom, discarded the paper, took two cod liver oil capsules with lukewarm tap water, and left. Better have a loosener before the door goes. He is late again. It’s the waiting; like waiting for the ring. Come on. Ring! There it goes, finish this, pour another, and then answer it. He can wait. Where is she? She’s answered the door. ‘Helô, mam’ ‘Prynhawn da, Rhodri’ ‘Shwmae?’ ‘Shwmae?’

Words faded into whispers and stillness stood. Rhodri walked past his father’s bedroom, the door open, the sound of his father laughing-whispering-laughing. ‘What do they talk about?’

———– I’d better go and see Keith or Rhodri, or whatever. They both say it with a rolled ‘R.’ Messiah put down the phone and went into the lounge.

Rhodri stared at the door and the space between them. In he comes. Is he going to hug me? He sits down, opens his tin, and rolls with practised fingers. He is, still, looking at me. He’ll speak first if I let him. Think of something. Say something. ‘Can you do one for me?’ Messiah says. The cod liver oil is beginning to repeat on me, I had better have a drink. ‘What?’ Rhodri says. ‘One of those, can you roll me one?’ Messiah said. ‘Yeah, course I can,’ he says. I am sure he stopped when Mair was born as I had a week after the day I first saw him. What looks like a rolled up bus ticket comes back. ‘Do you still check your bus tickets?’ I ask. ‘I’ve got an Oyster card,’ he says still not looking at me.

I should ask him about his children.

‘How are your kids?’ I ask him.

‘Your Grandchildren. They have names.’ Rhodri says.

Why doesn’t he look at me? I need a light. I saw him last Wednesday smoking by the clock tower outside the station, where we used to run for safety past the closed pub doors, to the shared space on the shared floor in the shared bed sitting room. I don’t think he saw me. What if he did? What does it matter, now? ‘Do you want a drink?’ I say, holding the roll-up, waiting for a light. He is smoking now and as the smoke curls around his plastic-framed lenses, he nods. The light squeezes in between the blinds cutting and shaping the rising smoke. ‘Yes.’ Back to silence, I hand him the drink; he sips it and sighs. Back to silence. The telephone is ringing. I hold my breath, but do not move. ‘Dad,’ he says, ‘don’t you want to get that?”


‘The Beginning is always today.’

– Mary Wollstonecraft


Monday June 9th 2014

I texted her the photo. She knows where the keys are. I’ll meet her on Westminster Bridge at 09:00. Why did my parents call me Deiniol? You cannot shorten it.


The beginning is never today. Gwenllian Evans stood somewhere near the middle of Westminster Bridge, as close to the centre as she dared. She might have paced it out another day, but, there, then, approximation would suffice.

Gwenllian had searched for her keys that morning, by the light of her phone, when she saw the missed calls and waiting messages. The previous night, Deiniol had texted her a photo of two blue flowerpots, the plants wilting, wilted. His spare keys were behind the red pot with the mock Mayan design. Gwenllian had bent to retrieve them and dropped her phone, cracking the screen diagonally. Fissures formed, crazy paving her profile picture – her mam standing outside Buckingham Palace with Auntie Roslyn in the summer of 1968, looking away from the camera.

Gwenllian had woken in last night’s make up, again, eyes glued, bruised lips sweet. Fags, condoms, lipstick, and lighter had fallen from her fake fur coat, draped across a pink-striped deckchair. Her mother would have said that it was too early for the dress he had bought her. But, no bother. She had never got her; seldom listened to her. She needed a toothbrush, couldn’t be arsed to find one, so swilled her mouth with Glenfiddich, spitting it back into the bottle. She popped the blister packs and swallowed three twenty mgs of Fluoxetine (the maximum Doctor Robert could prescribe) and one Microgynon 30 (in studies 99% effective) with a swig of Glenfiddich. She gagged and grimaced.

Two more missed calls, five minutes apart, around seven-fifteen that morning. He had left a voicemail after the second and sent her a message five minutes later. She would read it sometime, maybe. She had to leave. It was time.

Her Louboutin heels made her taller. She liked that. Her toenails a chipped aubergine in the pallid sunshine. None of it mattered now. She turned up her collar, tightened her belt, and left without a word – who was there to talk to anyway? – eyes front, half-asleep, half-awake. In between days. Two steps, about turn. Gwenllian replaced the keys behind the pot, thistles, and weeds strangling the dahlias. Collar up, belt tightened, Gwenllian walked from number seven Hampton Court, keeping close to the canal; its past weighed down by bricks and bags, and rusted bikes. Gwenllian swiped her Oyster Card and waited. Children in uniform, men in suits, and women in heels – tailored like dummies – nudged, shoved past her as she waited for the train. On the train she stood. Waiting. She waited.

Gwenllian stopped at the Thorneycroft statue of ‘Boudicca and Her Daughters’ and wondered again, why London had so readily co-opted the woman who had razed the city groundwards and just how fucked up the Victorians were.

It was eight-fifteen, now, and all life, seemingly lifeless, filed past and kept going. Here and now became there and then. Life marched past to its own synthesised tribal rhythm. ‘There’s more life in a tramp’s vest.’ She had first met Deiniol Roberts at the Stereophonics gig in Shepherd’s Bush, the day before her thirty-first birthday. He had texted her twice a day, every day, for the next two weeks until she agreed to meet him in Finsbury Park.


Thoughts of Finsbury Park could wait and so could Deiniol, as she waited on the bridge. No one looked, but she did, staring straight at them, framing every face. Each face defiantly familiar. She was invisible, their heads bent in reverence to the morning sun and to the mores of modern, predictable, London Life. Their pre-set positions locked in. They headed ever closer to the centre. Spat out from trains, buses, tubes, taxis, and trams to be chewed up later. All pulled by some concealed magnet towards the centre. She could not be like them. She had been one of them. Gwenllian would plan tomorrow when it came.

“Where the fuck is he? He is always fucking late. For fuck’s sake!” she said.

No one heard her, their headphones plugged in, eyes on fingers scrolling though megabytes of digitised data, searching for the perfect sounds to smooth the beast. So many the savage breasts. Gwenllian had enjoyed those final moments of solitude before she gave over her soul to the faceless fiend of The City within the city. She wanted to speak to every man and woman as they passed her searching for answers, but she only knew that she didn’t know the questions. They might all be happy.


She did not want to doubt him. He was the most inconstant of her flightless coterie. The best had flown further south the previous summer. Gwenllian flipped the box lid with her thumb, discarded the silver pull, pulled out her lucky Lucky Strike, and checked her pockets for her lighter – he’d given her that throwaway souvenir of a Thursday night in starless Soho. Seven pints in the upstairs bar at the Dog & Duck, two double whiskeys, and a fumbled fuck in an alley by Libertys. Disposable life. Her feet stabilised by a bin, the wall sun-baked all day, was now clammy. He said that he worked in films and that they should diarize. She had left her knickers, lit a cigarette, and caught the tube back home. No one talked at night either. Headphones on, world out. Everywhere.


The greying clouds whirled above her, before meandering past; others followed. It hadn’t been like this the last time she’d stood there. He had arrived first and was tussling with Araucaria, as he did every Wednesday. If only she had been stronger then, she would not be here now.


Gwenllian’s mother, Agatha, had only one hero and she quoted Mary Wollstonecraft daily. She missed her mother, more at that moment than at any time since she had left. She remembered the quote as she remembered that same spot on the protean river.

“Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold… I shall plunge into the Thames where there is least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek…”

‘Excuse me?’ the hint of an accent, not London or anywhere she could place, but it would come.

‘What?’ Gwenllian said, stuck between Soho nights and Westminster mornings.

‘Have you got a light?’ he said.

She had missed his face, caught in thought, but had seen a whir of brown: suit, shirt, shoes, no tie, and square rainbow cufflinks. An odd distraction, but in the city, maybe not. Liver-spotted hands clutching a roll-up in the left and a hardback in the right. It looked like de Maupassant. Bel Ami. She had read it at school.

Why was he stopping? Speak to someone else, already, is it! She was waiting. Couldn’t he see that?

‘No,’ she said. She looked at his feet and her feet and the free morning newspapers compacted into the pavement between them.

She had just found the lighter and could hear the zip of the wheel, feel it gouging, as the light glowed orange and red and her face grew ashen.

Why was he wearing a brown suit?

‘Why are you wearing a suit?’ she asked him, looking at his knees.

‘Yes, you have,’ brownsuit said. He was still there and even that look hadn’t shifted him. He might not have seen it, she hadn’t looked above his waist and was still trying to place his accent, which broadened and softened to a street-smart mockney as he went on. He smiled, mugging to some hidden audience, eyebrows raised, he started to head towards the city.

‘What do you, like, want from me?’ Gwenllian asked his departing back.

‘A light,’ he said without turning. He waited.

‘Oh.’ She handed him a drooping, moistened butt. He looked at her looking at his neck, took the dog-end and flicked it into the Thames; that ever-present, ever-changing, brown splodge daubed by a pre-schoolers fist. It was so close; she could touch it. She could smell it.

His unlit roll-up now in the curve of his mouth, yellow dried spittle cornering his lips, he looked at her a second time.

‘What’s wrong with your lighter?’ he said.

Why would he ask that? She ignored the question and said, ‘That was like my last one.’ It wasn’t but it might have been. She lit another cigarette, balancing it between her lips, turned up her collar, and tightened her belt.

‘You look freezing, do you want a coffee?’ he said. He said the words slowly, looking at her feet. However casually he had tried to frame the question, she felt his desperation.

‘I don’t see no ice and coffee wakes me up,’ she said seeing a diamond stud in his left ear.

‘There’s a shop just over the bridge. Do you want to go and get some?’ he said.

She looked over his shoulder, back across the bridge, and checked the time on her phone. The cracks had widened. He was late. She had time. She could wait there or in a coffee shop. Waiting is waiting whatever the venue.

Gwenllian knew that she couldn’t go back, but inching towards her future chilled her more. Her toes, now, the same colour as the polish. She saw him now, saw the bridge, saw the sun, and saw the river and finally she got it. It all seemed so clear as she slipped off her shoes and took a step towards the other side. She had waited and so could he.


“You’re like book ends, the pair of you, she’d say, Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare… The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay, only our silence made us seem a pair.”

Tony Harrison – Bookends


Sunday May 25th 2014

Rhodri tried to remember rapping the same brass knocker he had struck for years – until they had given him his own keys with the St Christopher fob – up the path, through thistles and weeds, bus tickets and weak-as-piss lager cans. He always tried to picture arriving. “Life is a series of miniscule, microscopic moments,” Gwenllian had said to him sometime, somewhere. He would picture it, remember it, later. He had an empty canvas before him, but could not find inspiration anywhere. He needed to think.


He remembered knocking the door, now, and the reverberation. Headphones in, Lee Scratch Perry’s adventures in ultra-dub. Stinging-nettle-knuckles, he remembered those; but why no bell. They had taken the old knocker down sometime after he had left. When he came home next, it was gone. He had meant to ask them why, but he had another picture to paint. A full canvas this time, but still no inspiration. Rhodri wanted to write, to set scenes, to picture conversations, to draw living characters, but the muses mocked him. Again.

The bass kicked in, the drums followed its lead. He felt them in his heart and his lungs shook as he took a final toke on the chillum and knocked the door again. Knocked the chillum against his brogue boots and took the damp, stained cloth from the mouthpiece. His mam, Agatha, had never like reggae, dub, or soca. “Why you have to listen to that large island music?” she would say, taking the needle off the record scratching the thin vinyl on the way and replacing it with Tom Jones. Agatha loved Tom Jones, the book, the film, the man, and the music.

One day you was dreadlocks, well dread, next day you was ballhead, clean shave. One step forwards two steps backwards, Jah in a Babylon.Onward forward don’t step backward soundtracked every summer journey in the battered car with the pink ice cream stains on the scalding leatherette. Only through his headphones, through the worn tape on his personal stereo. His mates had Walkmans – should they be Walkmen? Rhodri had an ALBA Personal Stereo from the Littlewoods catalogue. Twenty monthly payments at eighty-five pence a week. He had never paid it off.

Rhodri knocked again, took his headphones out, and heard his father’s flat monotone striking up, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” A ‘Negro Spiritual’ – sang tunelessly, but it knocked the cacophonous dirge at Twickenham into the cockiest of cocked hats.

His mam outlined through the sunburst stained glass drew the latch across, turned the first of two keys, and smiled at him, strands of her hair falling lazily across eyes and nose.

‘Helô, mam’ ‘Prynhawn da, Rhodri’ ‘Shwmae?’ ‘Shwmae?’

Words faded into whispers and stillness stood. Rhodri walked past his parents’ bedroom, the door open, the sound of his father laughing, whispering, laughing.

The smell of the weather blended in with the leather, as Rhodri took in the changing room. A new mirror over the fireplace, a new fire screen below, and fresh daffodils his mam would replace with the yellow roses and irises he had given her as she cwtched him and he kissed both her cheeks. Her hair tickled his nose. He giggled and his mam giggled and cwtched in closer.

‘I’ve got an appointment at the hairdressers on George Street tomorrow,’ she said as she took the flowers to the kitchen. She filled the kettle and flicked the switch.

His dad opened the door to his room and Rhodri’s switch flicked. He sat down, the brown leather still cold on such a sunstruck morning. He put the marker, the outward ticket with the square-torn corners, between the ninety-ninth and hundredth pages of the book he hadn’t opened on the train. Rhodri looked up towards his father. He didn’t smile. They didn’t shake hands. They had never cwtched. Every hair was in place. As their eyes met, they quickly darted left to right, away from each other, to find neutral space elsewhere in that cluttered living room. Rhodri heard the heavy dub echoing around the space he gave it, but not there. His iPod was still playing Lee Perry, reedy resonances escaping from the headphones, into the room, around and between them.

Had his dad said something? To him? Rhodri groped for the answer to a question. Was it a question? Were there even words? Had he heard him or was this just some deeper echo as the bass beat his chest? He pressed stop and the silence engulfed them, held them in place.

His dad walked to the mantle and moved a jar of potpourri an inch from its prescribed position of the last fourteen years.

‘How…um…are you ok, Keith? Um…Rhodri. Been up to anything lately? Are you…?’ he said and moved the potpourri back again.


“For fuck’s sake, how many times do we have to go through this shit?” Rhodri wanted to tell him about the high water mark and the wave breaking…Why not? If anyone could understand fear and loathing…anywhere…it was his dad.

‘What you chatting about!’ The rasp of sucking teeth. Stewps. ‘Why you have your face like who shit dere?’ his dad said.


Rhodri heard him say, this time, ‘Did you know that spectre is an anagram of respect?’


Patterns everywhere, they liked it that way, they always had, and he always had. Rhodri had never liked crochet. It was the picture of his childhood. Crochet and Tretchikoff’s Green Lady.


‘How are your kids?’ he asks.

‘Your Grandchildren. They have names.’ Rhodri said, finding an undiscovered pattern in the antimacassar on the sofa opposite.


Nothing. Silence skips and bounces between the walls; break it, or watch the fragile peace shatter. The low water mark. Rhodri could sense the squalling shower outside as it cast shadows on the dividing wall, reflected by the fireplace mirror into half-formed opacity.

‘They miss you, you know. You can come and see them any time.’ Rhodri said, seeing his dad’s cataracts clouding his once mahogany eyes.


Rhodri’s father turned, as if to look at him, but sought safety in the carpet again. Rhodri knew the rhythm. Keep dancing. The clouds will break soon and someone will change the record.

The floor was his; his honour. Tony Harrison lay open on the low central table, the middle pages proud.

Dust wrapped the VHS collection, next to the DVD player his dad would never use. Never know how to use. Someone else can do it. There is always someone else.

‘Cricket,’ Rhodri said. He had given that to him, on his birthday, a treat that second heady summer. Cricket and C.L.R. James always worked. They defined the ends of the wicket’s twenty-two yards. Rhodri could not see the boundary rope from the middle. ‘Shall we go?’

‘Can you get tickets? I’ve not seen them since we went in…1984 was it?” his dad said.

‘I can get tickets through my work; I told you last time I would sort it out. It’ll be a good day out. We’ll go for a few beers before and after in the Brockwell Park Tavern and watch the cricket. We’ll get roti on the way back, and…’

‘When is it?’ his dad asked, sitting on the sofa opposite and sipping from a glass of Laphroaig.


Rhodri was on the bus taking him back again, sitting there, staring at his dad’s cataracts, trying to remember the words from the Harrison poem.

‘Back in our silences and sullen looks,

For all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s

Not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.’


Front row at the Charlotte, he could taste the words, feel with calloused fingertips every chord. Music was everything back then, music they did not share.

Those three words remained unsaid, stuck in their throats like prawn shells.


‘It’s on Saturday 25th. I’ll meet you here at ten and then we can get the bus over. We’ll have a good day,’ Rhodri said, and looked towards the kitchen, where is mam was still making tea. She still warms the pot. She still uses a pot!

‘Cheer up,’ his father spits into the dregs of his glass, drains it, and looks to Rhodri’s right, turns, he knows what’s there, but cannot see beyond the reflection. Rhodri wants to say something, but reopens the book. He wants to rise, but he is pinned like the stoner in the shared days of his Oxford back room.

‘Are you coming to the cricket or not?’ Rhodri asks, putting down the book and walking towards the kitchen.

His mam walks in, teapot and cups, saltfish, yam, and dasheen on two plates. The lights, always on, rebound off her best china and the room opens. A bead of sweat runs down a stray, kinked lock, and falls to the ground between them.


War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

George Orwell


Île de Gorée, Senegal – Sunday June 19th 1796

Kofi Uwosu tasted blood; smelled blood. A glancing blow from a carved wooden club struck him from behind on the left temple. A left-hander. Blood again. Smell. Taste. Focus shifting to a point. Light. Gone.

I’ve been published!

Durre Shahwar

This was one of my goals to achieve by the end of the year, and as the year comes to an end, I’m feeling pretty pleased to have achieved it. Two of my short pieces have been published in two different anthologies alongside other, brilliant, local, Welsh writers. Many of them are young writers, students, and for many of them it is also their first time being published. It feels lovely to be part of the Welsh literary community right now.

One of the anthologies was the Robin Reeves Prize for Young Writers 2015, which I submitted to and got Anthologiesshortlisted for. The anthology is called How to Exit a Burning Building and it has been published by Parthian Books in collaboration with Welsh Writers’ Trust. More details can be found here.

The other anthology, Metropolitan Volume 1, is a collection put together by Cardiff Metropolitan University Press. It includes…

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Articulating the Black Diaspora – An Unweeded Garden

This is the stuff I’m writing about…The article below from The Guardian gives you some background.
David Olusoga

Sunday 12 July 2015 00.04 BST
Last modified on Sunday 12 July 2015 11.38 BST


The past has a disconcerting habit of bursting, uninvited and unwelcome, into the present. This year history gate-crashed modern America in the form of a 150-year-old document: a few sheets of paper that compelled Hollywood actor Ben Affleck to issue a public apology and forced the highly regarded US public service broadcaster PBS to launch an internal investigation.

The document, which emerged during the production of Finding Your Roots, a celebrity genealogy show, is neither unique nor unusual. It is one of thousands that record the primal wound of the American republic – slavery. It lists the names of 24 slaves, men and women, who in 1858 were owned by Benjamin L Cole, Affleck’s great-great-great-grandfather. When this uncomfortable fact came to light, Affleck asked the show’s producers to conceal his family’s links to slavery. Internal emails discussing the programme were later published by WikiLeaks, forcing Affleck to admit in a Facebook post: “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed.”

It was precisely because slaves were reduced to property that they appear so regularly in historic documents, both in the US and in Britain. As property, slaves were listed in plantation accounts and itemised in inventories. They were recorded for tax reasons and detailed alongside other transferable goods on the pages of thousands of wills. Few historical documents cut to the reality of slavery more than lists of names written alongside monetary values. It is now almost two decades since I had my first encounter with British plantation records, and I still feel a surge of emotion when I come across entries for slave children who, at only a few months old, have been ascribed a value in sterling; the sale of children and the separation of families was among the most bitterly resented aspects of an inhuman system.

Slavery resurfaces in America regularly. The disadvantage and discrimination that disfigures the lives and limits the life chances of so many African-Americans is the bitter legacy of the slave system and the racism that underwrote and outlasted it. Britain, by contrast, has been far more successful at covering up its slave-owning and slave-trading past. Whereas the cotton plantations of the American south were established on the soil of the continental United States, British slavery took place 3,000 miles away in the Caribbean.

That geographic distance made it possible for slavery to be largely airbrushed out of British history, following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Many of us today have a more vivid image of American slavery than we have of life as it was for British-owned slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean. The word slavery is more likely to conjure up images of Alabama cotton fields and whitewashed plantation houses, of Roots, Gone With The Wind and 12 Years A Slave, than images of Jamaica or Barbados in the 18th century. This is not an accident.

The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet. Today, across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter”. Thousands of biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else expunged such unpleasant details altogether. The Dictionary of National Biography has been especially culpable in this respect. Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the erasing of slavery from the Britain’s “island story”. If it was geography that made this great forgetting possible, what completed the disappearing act was our collective fixation with the one redemptive chapter in the whole story. William Wilberforce and the abolitionist crusade, first against the slave trade and then slavery itself, has become a figleaf behind which the larger, longer and darker history of slavery has been concealed.
Plan of a slave ship showinmg how slaves were stowed, manacled, into the hold.
Plan of a slave ship showinmg how slaves were stowed, manacled, into the hold. Photograph: Christopher Jones/Bristol Museum

It is still the case that Wilberforce remains the only household name of a history that begins during the reign of Elizabeth I and ends in the 1830s. There is no slave trader or slave owner, and certainly no enslaved person, who can compete with Wilberforce when it comes to name recognition. Little surprise then that when, in 2007, we marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the only feature film to emerge from the commemoration was Amazing Grace, a Wilberforce biopic.

George Orwell once likened Britain to a wealthy family that maintains a guilty silence about the sources of its wealth. Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, had seen that conspiracy of silence at close quarters. His father, Richard W Blair, was a civil servant who oversaw the production of opium on plantations near the Indian-Nepalese border and supervised the export of that lethal crop to China. The department for which the elder Blair worked was called, unashamedly, the opium department. However, the Blair family fortune – which had been largely squandered by the time Eric was born – stemmed from their investments in plantations far from India.

The Blair name is one of thousands that appear in a collection of documents held at the National Archives in Kew that have the potential to do to Britain what the hackers of WikiLeaks and the researchers of PBS did to Affleck. The T71 files consist of 1,631 volumes of leather-bound ledgers and neatly tied bundles of letters that have lain in the archives for 180 years, for the most part unexamined. They are the records and the correspondence of the Slave Compensation Commission.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. What is less well known is that the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their “property”. The compensation commission was the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners and administer the distribution of the £20m the government had set aside to pay them off. That sum represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. It is the modern equivalent of between £16bn and £17bn.

The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.

The records of the Slave Compensation Commission are an unintended byproduct of the scheme. They represent a near complete census of British slavery as it was on 1 August, 1834, the day the system ended. For that one day we have a full list of Britain’s slave owners. All of them. The T71s tell us how many slaves each of them owned, where those slaves lived and toiled, and how much compensation the owners received for them. Although the existence of the T71s was never a secret, it was not until 2010 that a team from University College London began to systematically analyse them. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, which is still continuing, is led by Professor Catherine Hall and Dr Nick Draper, and the picture of slave ownership that has emerged from their work is not what anyone was expecting.

The large slave owners, the men of the “West India interest”, who owned huge estates from which they drew vast fortunes, appear in the files of the commission. The man who received the most money from the state was John Gladstone, the father of Victorian prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. He was paid £106,769 in compensation for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations, the modern equivalent of about £80m. Given such an investment, it is perhaps not surprising that William Gladstone’s maiden speech in parliament was in defence of slavery.

The records show that for the 218 men and women he regarded as his property, Charles Blair, the great-grandfather of George Orwell, was paid the more modest sum of £4,442 – the modern equivalent of about £3m. There are other famous names hidden within the records. Ancestors of the novelist Graham Greene, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott all received compensation for slaves. As did a distant ancestor of David Cameron. But what is most significant is the revelation of the smaller-scale slave owners.

Slave ownership, it appears, was far more common than has previously been presumed. Many of these middle-class slave owners had just a few slaves, possessed no land in the Caribbean and rented their slaves out to landowners, in work gangs.These bit-players were home county vicars, iron manufacturers from the Midlands and lots and lots of widows. About 40% of the slave owners living in the colonies were women. Then, as now, women tended to outlive their husbands and simply inherited human property through their partner’s wills.

The geographic spread of the slave owners who were resident in Britain in 1834 was almost as unexpected as the gender breakdown. Slavery was once thought of as an activity largely limited to the ports from which the ships of the triangular trade set sail; Bristol, London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Yet there were slave owners across the country, from Cornwall to the Orkneys. In proportion to population, the highest rates of slave ownership are found in Scotland.

The T71 files have been converted into an online database; a free, publicly available resource.

During the production of a documentary series about Britain’s slave owners for the BBC, made in partnership with UCL, all of my colleagues who learned of the existence of the database found themselves compelled to enter their own family names. Those whose surnames flashed up on screen experienced, like Ben Affleck, a strange sense of embarrassment, irrespective of whether the slave owners in question were potentially ancestors.

There are, however, millions of people, in the Caribbean and the UK, who do not need a database to tell them that they are linked to Britain’s hidden slave-owning past. The descendants of the enslaved carry the same English surnames that appear in the ledgers of the Slave Compensation Commission – Gladstone, Beckford, Hibbert, Blair, etc – names that were imposed on their ancestors, initials that were sometimes branded on their skin, in order to mark them as items of property.

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, the first of two episodes, presented by David Olusoga, will be broadcast on Wednesday on BBC2. Click here for the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Database

■ In 1807, parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, effective throughout the British empire.

■ It wasn’t until 1838 that slavery was abolished in British colonies through the Slavery Abolition Act, giving all slaves in the British empire their freedom

■ It is estimated about 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th century and 1807.

■ When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain, according to the Slave Compensation Commission, the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners

■ British slave owners received a total of £20m (£1.6bn in today’s money) in compensation when slavery was abolished. Among those who received payouts were the ancestors of novelists George Orwell and Graham Greene.