Sunday, 22 August 2021

Britain's role in Vietnam

Vietnamese propaganda poster c.1960s
(translator unknown)

When we think of countries that have interfered aggressively against the people of Vietnam over the previous century the Americans are probably the first country that comes to most people's minds, with the French a close second, perhaps followed by Japan, and then China. 
What is less well known is Britain's role in trying to restore French colonialism on the Indochinese peninsula after World War 2 which, like British diplomatic support for US sanctions after the Vietnamese military victory of 1975, is rarely mentioned in official histories.
Most historians, and consequently even some peace activists, tend to look favourably on the stance that Prime Minister Wilson took to the American War, refusing to send British troops to kill and be killed, but preserving the "special relationship" by providing diplomatic support for the US war of aggression. Its image of a cautious approach to foreign policy is as comforting as it is misleading.

This much I was aware of. 

I also knew about the diplomatic support that Prime Minister Thatcher later offered the US during the post-war economic embargo it imposed on the Vietnamese as punishment for their victory. This is less discussed on television documentaries than the period of the war itself and Wilson's stance, and I only know about it because of the work of independent journalists like John Pilger. 
Pilger has also drawn attention to Thatcher's role in lobbying the UN on behalf of the USA to cut shipments of powdered milk to the war-ravaged nation, which Vietnam had been receiving through the UN's food aid programme. (I still wonder why this woman had such a callous disregard for children's nutrition, be they Vietnamese or British.)
On the other hand, I had been far less aware of Britain's role in trying to restore French colonialism to the Indochinese peninsula following the Japanese defeat in WW2. I owe much to the work of historian John Newsinger for bringing this history to light.

The key events happened in the autumn of 1945. 

On September 2, President Ho Chi Minh read his famous speech to a large crowd in Hanoi, proclaiming the independence of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam and reading from their Declaration of Independence. So grateful were the Vietnamese for the material support the Viet Minh national liberation army had received from the US in order to defeat the Japanese military occupation that large sections of the newly drafted Declaration are modelled after the US Declaration. US intelligence officials have been identified applauding in the crowd, presumably hopeful that the new nation of Vietnam would be a useful client state in the region.

On September 6 however we see the first British troops, commanded by General Douglas Gracey, begin arriving in the southern city of Saigon. Viet Minh control is weakest here in the south of the country, and the British seek to exploit this weakness by proceeding to introduce a form of martial law, disarming the nationalists and arming newly released POWs.
By September 23, with Gracey's support, the French were able to seize power in Saigon by taking over the city hall and arresting any Vietnamese they thought were connected to or sympathetic to the new government in Hanoi. 

The historian George Rosie records one clash that took place between 80 members of the British Indian Infantry Brigade (Gracey, like the author George Orwell, came from that tier of British society born to parents living in British India, but educated at private schools back in the UK) that resulted in the deaths of at least 60 Vietnamese.
It was only due to considerable pressure that General Gracey was forced to open negotiations with the Viet Minh, who he had refused to recognise up until this point. However, this was merely a ploy to buy time for reinforcements to arrive.

English language film poster for Memories of Dien Bien
(source: IMDB)

The rest is pretty well known history. The French continued their attempts to restore their colonial domination of Indochina until they were finally defeated at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 (a period depicted in the 2004 film Memories of Dien Bien). By this time the Cold War was underway, and the USA was fully in the grip of its anti-communist fervour, so was more inclined to view the new socialist government in Hanoi far more negatively than when it was fighting against Axis-aligned Japan.

Thursday, 29 April 2021


This is quite an old comic strip which I created in 2005. At the time I was still producing a lot of work for the groovy people at Hope Street Studios in Glasgow, but it wasn't stoner humour so I kept it on the back burner, and so it has sat hidden in my files for the last few years. I can't remember why I made the guard into a French-style gendarme. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, 12 April 2021


I have enjoyed a lot of the historical comics that have been published over the last decade immensely, whether it is Mary and Bryan Talbot's graphic novels about the French revolutionary Louise Michel, or Kate Evans' book about the Polish-German communist Rosa Luxembourg, or even the late, great Spain Rodriguez's graphic autobiography of the Argentine revolutionary, and honorary Cuban, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

What more could a former bookseller, whose principle published comics have been a series of short strips consisting mainly of gags aimed at Scottish stoners a decade ago, possibly add to magnificent illustrated tomes of this nature? After all, there are many (non-illustrated) books about these revolutionaries and others in the English language.

If you have looked at this blog before you will know that I have a particular fascination with uncovering art (including comics, music and film) that lies outside the mainstream of western culture. The Cold War years certainly shut us off from a lot of art and culture which only cheaper travel and the Internet has made (theoretically) more accessible. Yet despite being able to travel freely to countries of the former Soviet Union for thirty years, most people in the west remain oblivious of the culture of the east, effectively shut out by the invisible barriers of language. Add to this the fact that if the entire culture of a civilisation is routinely written off for by western pundits and historians as mere propaganda for a century, you create a situation in which people in the west aren't even aware of what they are missing.

The first installment of Going East is about a Canadian musician who emigrated to East Germany, and seems to remain completely unknown in Canada and the wider western world because he sang in German and any books that have been written about him are only published in German. I hope it inspires some people to find out more art they may have missed out on. I assure you, its the merest tip of the iceberg.


Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Revisiting Hanworth's Largest Outdoor Street Art Gallery 2020

It may not be the lanes of Melbourne or the east end of London, but I keep returning to the stunning work being produced in this outdoor space beside a crematorium in south west London.

Most appealing to me is the large number of artists incorporating characters into their work.

Some are far more reminiscent of cartoons than "traditional" graphotism with its elaborate sense of design.


Friday, 5 June 2020

Comics in the GDR

Following on from my previous post, about the British journalist who ended up becoming a hit crime author in East Germany, but also continuing the series of articles I began earlier this year about comics around the world. 

I am indebted to the German language website for much of this information and to online translation tools for helping me understand it.

Atze was the name of a children’s adventure comic in the GDR. The small-format comic magazine was published monthly from 1955 to 1991 by Junge Welt-Verlag, under the direction the national youth organisation the FDJ (in English: ‘Free German Youth’), and was aimed at the members of the Ernst Thälmann Pioneers (an East German version of the Boy Scouts or Woodcraft Folk). It’s first editor was Klaus Hilbig.

Popular themes included the October Revolution, the communist resistance against Nazism, or partisan stories, but also stories about voyages of discovery.

However, not all of the comic strips drew upon events from labour or partisan history for inspiration. Jürgen Kieser (1921-2019), who created the title character Atze, a boy from Berlin, also created the popular comic strip about two mice named ‘Fix and Fax’ in 1958. An animated version of this comic strip with puppets was produced by DEFA in 1969. Although ‘Fix and Fax’ was discontinued in 1991, the comic strips have continued to be published in various collected editions since 1994.

The series ‘Pats Reiseabenteuer’ (in English: ‘Pat's Travel Adventures’), which ran from 1967 until 1991, was about a wandering journeyman travelling around Germany in the 19th century, often meeting famous historical personalities, and the episodes always contained a competition where readers were asked to spot the modern item hidden within the panels. It was written by Atze’s editor Wolfgang Altenburger and drawn by Harry Schlegel. The artist Günter Hain also created ‘The Bells of Novgorod’ in the 1980s.

In many primary schools in the GDR, the Working Group "Junge Brandschutzhelfer" (Young Fire Safety Helpers) was founded in the 1960s, which were known as the "Atze fire brigade" until 1990. The Atze editorial staff promoted fire safety for children and young people through regular reports on the groups’ activities. The television network of the GDR also addressed the work of the Atze fire brigades, commonly in its holiday programming.

The magazine FRÖSI (short for "Fröhlich sein und singen" or “Be Cheerful and Sing”, which does sound a bit coercive within the context of a one-party state) was aimed at kids between 6 and 14 and also featured some comic strips, among other content about interesting crafts and scientific and cultural stuff. From the 1960s it also published comic strips from places like Italy and Hungary. Jürgen Günther (1938-2015) created a comic strip for the magazine about a fat orangutan named Otto, which later became ‘Otto and Alwin’ in 1976 with the addition of a penguin who escaped from a zoo and became Otto’s friend.

The ruling Socialist Equality Party of the GDR struggled with what to do about comics throughout the countries' 40 year existence, which I suppose explains why the East German comics scene was quite small. Most of those that were published, like Atze and FRÖSI, seemed to strike a balance between popular strips featuring characters like Fix and Fax and more propagandistic offerings that promoted the SEP's socialist worldview. Both its small size and the fact that East German comics have been almost entirely ignored in the west means that for many years I remained oblivious that the GDR had any comics, hence the reason for this article.

My other articles about comics around the world:

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

An Englishman in the East

Born in London, England in 1910, and winning a scholarship to Chigwell School as a child, during his lifetime the British journalist and novelist Alan Winnington would travel the world.
As a young man, following a chance meeting with Harry Pollitt in a pub in 1934, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and he soon became a branch secretary. His career in journalism began when he landed a job with a photo agency, and soon he was writing for socialist newspapers like the Daily Worker (as the Morning Star was known at the time) which he continued to write for from the 1940s up until the 1960s. For the first few years after WW2 he became “our man in Beijing”, when he reported on the early years of the newly independent People’s Republic of China for the Daily Worker, while also working as an advisor to the new Xinhua (New China) news agency.

Uncomfortable Truths
His location in Asia meant he was ideally placed to report on the Korean war when it broke out in June 1950, and he would anger his own government by reporting on both the Korean and later the Vietnam wars from the communist side. Along with his colleague, the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett (who was equally ostracized for his reporting by his own birth country), Winnington would expose the use of biological weapons against Koreans by the USA.
For this brave reporting both men had their passports removed for many years.

From China to Germany
By 1960 Winnington had learned to speak Chinese fluently, but had already become skeptical of Mao’s approach to building socialism at least two years earlier because of the "Great Leap Forward" and other campaigns, which he described as “stupidities.” He left China with his Sino-British wife Esther and their two children, settling in East Berlin while they attempted to negotiate the return of his British passport with the help of Lance Samson, a German Jew who also worked for the Star.
The British government were still considering a charge of treason or espionage, possibly with a death sentence, as punishment for his reporting during the Korean war, so even after the restoration of his passport he did not return permanently to his country of birth, choosing instead to remain in Berlin. Sadly, his wife wanted to return to Britain, and their marriage broke down when she decided to move with their two children back to Britain, where she married Samson with whom she had a third child. Their daughter Polly would subsequently grow up to become an author in her own right.
After making the decision to remain in the east, Winnington began a new family with a lady named Ursula Wittbrodt, who he had met in 1963 and who would become Ursula Winnington when they married in 1967. He did not receive his British passport until a year later. (Burchett had to wait until Gough Whitlam’s Labour government came to power in 1972 before his birthright was restored.)
Winnington continued to work as a correspondent for the Morning Star from his new home in the GDR, and also served at times as an Asia advisor to the East German government. During the Vietnam War he repeatedly had the opportunity to travel to the Far East where he reported from both China and Vietnam.

From Journalism to Crime Writing
Alongside his journalistic work however, Winnington was increasingly beginning to develop a career as a novelist and author of crime fiction, among them novels in German like Heart failure, Inspector Gullet and The Death Curve, The Presumed Dead Man and Angler's Alibi. He also wrote children's books, such as a fantasy novel in two volumes about a robot horse called "Silver hoof", which was set in the Himalayas. During his time in China, he had developed a considerable love and admiration for the people of Tibet, writing Tibet: Record of a Journey (1957), which these stories reflected.
He even had a very brief foray into acting, appearing in a small film role as a Chief of Intelligence Service in the 1967 East German film Die Gefrorenen Blitze (Frozen Flashes), although he seems to have enjoyed more success with writing. His crime novel Police Alibi was made into a film for East German television in 1971 (Tod in der Kurve), while Milliony Ferfaksa (Fairfax’s Millions) was turned into a feature film in 1980 by the Russian Dovzhenko Film Studios.
His autobiography Breakfast with Mao was first published in a small German print run, as he had still been writing it when he died on 26th November 1983. Described by the historian Edwin Moise in the London Review of Books as “marvellously readable” it only appeared in English in 1986 when Lawrence and Wishart published it as From London to Beijing: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent 1914 to 1960.
Nine short novels, six of which belong to the crime and detective genre, the aforementioned two children's books and four travel books about China and Asia have also been published in English at some time or another. Yet despite this diverse oeuvre it appears that Slaves of the Cool Mountains remains the only one of his books currently still in print in the English language, and he currently has no English language Wikipedia entry.
Today Ursula Winnington is mainly known in Germany as an author of cookbooks, where she has been called the “Chef Queen of the East”, with some of her books reaching a total circulation of over one million copies, including her Kleines Kochbuch für Kinder (Small Cookbook for Children) (1977). Since 1992, Klatschmohn Verlag has reissued three of her most popular books, and in 2008 she published another book Liebe, Lust und Leckereien (Love, Lust and Treats). In 1995, long after Winnington’s death in 1983 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, she opened The Gecko in Berlin, a shop for exotic furniture and gifts from all over the world, and continues to make her home in Berlin.

Revival of Interest from Korea
Alan Winnington remains almost unknown in the country of his birth, and the English speaking world more broadly. Unlike Burchett, who is mainly remembered for his Daily Express article of 1945 which exposed the reality of nuclear radiation sickness following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Winnington does not even have an English language Wikipedia entry. He is remembered, it seems, only in Germany.
With this in mind it is therefore quite noteworthy that recently the media organisation Ahim and South Korean journalist Im Hyoin have been bringing Winnington’s revelations about US atrocities in Korea to light once more, if only in South Korea, among them Winnington’s work exposing the notoriously under-reported Sincheon massacre. This atrocity even inspired a painting by Picasso which sits in the Picasso Museum in Paris. It is a painting as stark and brutal as his earlier painting Guernica inspired by fascist atrocities in the Spanish Civil War but which still remains far less well known. 

This should give us pause to reflect upon how, thirty years after the Cold War ended, its logic continues to distort our own historical memory.


Friday, 1 May 2020

The Longford River at Feltham

The Longford River flows through south west London. Its path is not entirely natural, having been canalised at various stages and engineered to flow downhill in order to feed the majestic Diana Fountain in Bushy Park. It flows through various landscapes on its journey, including skirting the southern edge of Heathrow Airport and making its way through Feltham and Hampton.

So many local artists use Bushy Park as a source of inspiration for their landscape art that I wanted to focus some attention on the more overlooked landscapes through which the river passes, like this stretch of the river as it flows from Bedfont towards Feltham town centre, hinted at by the buildings on the horizon.

If you like it there are a variety of forms for you to own it available through my Red Bubble page.