David Olusoga is one of the University of Liverpool’s most successful alumnus. Contributor to The One Show and The Guardian, presenter of the 2016 BAFTA TV award winning Legacies of British Slave-ownership, and most recently his work on the BBC documentary series A House Through Time are but a few of Olusoga’s stand out achievements. Awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Liverpool in 2017, Olusoga is still as intrigued and invested in the history of Liverpool as he was as a student in the early 1990’s.
After a busy afternoon travelling back to Liverpool and leading a lecture for the UoL History Department, he very kindly agreed to an interview with The Sphinx, and witnessed millennial habits at their best, by participating in awfully lit selfies.
Entering the Guild Courtyard, David was nostalgic, reminiscing his years as a student and how the building compared to his last visit, around 25 years ago. With a glass of white wine in hand, we left the Courtyard bar and headed to our interview room.
[Heather] What was your time like as a student at the University of Liverpool? Do you have any favourite memories tied to any parts of campus?
I had three wonderful years in Liverpool, and I’m slightly giddy to be back because I haven’t been in this building for 25 years [The Guild]. I had a wonderful time, I was so lucky, I chose my university without really understanding Liverpool and I made such an instinctually right choice. It’s a great city, it was a great university, I loved my course, I learnt everything I needed to. I was armoured for the future in a way that I didn’t fully understand. I had lecturers who had my best interests at heart more than I realised, and now when I think back I actually notice that they were trying to usher me in the right direction, and I was too blind to notice it at the time. It was wonderful, I have nothing but happy memories.
[Jess] Were you part of any societies whilst you were here?
I ran what was called the Green Group, which was the ecological society, and we used to meet upstairs here. I am afraid I left disenchanted, because I was trying to lead an ecological kind of campaign and there were lots of people who were much more interested in having more fun than I thought they should be doing, and I wanted it to all be sort of pious and righteous. They were more interested in circus skills and doing juggling, and I wanted us to sort of bring down ICI [laughs]. So we organised an action to stop the importation of hardwood from Sarawak in Malaysia on the Mersey. We went out with Earth First! and other ecological groups under the Mersey in speedboats and tried to stop the ship docking… and got arrested. I remember having to explain why I’d missed lectures, and one of my lecturers saying ‘good for you’, that I’d been out campaigning and involved in political stuff. I believe his name was Patrick Tuck, I haven’t thought about Patrick in a long time, he was an amazing guy.
[Heather] It’s a pretty good excuse not to go to a lecture.
Well they locked us all in a warehouse down on the Mersey because there were so many of us. It wasn’t really a formal arrest, some people were charged, I wasn’t. Slightly disappointed about not being charged. [Laughs]
I think I did what you should be doing in your late teens early twenties, I felt really politically engaged, I felt I was learning loads, and I went to university and came back a different person. If you go to university and you’re still the same person at the end of those three years you’ve wasted your money. I was changed enormously, aspects of myself I didn’t know about came out, confident beliefs that I was sure I knew, and positions I’d taken without much thinking or reading were challenged, and I was a different person.
[Jess] How did your studies influence your work surrounding slavery in Liverpool? How did you become involved in that?
One of my reasons for coming to Liverpool was so that I could study slavery here, with Keith Mason, and that was one of the decisive reasons why I wanted to come here. Now I wanted to study slavery because all I knew is I wanted to study history which was global, I didn’t just want to do British history. I’m not from a Caribbean background, so slavery is not part of my heritage in that sens, but I wanted to study it as part of colonialism. I could do American history here, I could do the history of slavery, I could do renaissance history, and I chose what I studied based on heterogeneity. I didn’t want to specialise, I’ve never really specialised, and that sort of being the kind of defining feature of my attitude toward history, is to not have a specialism. This was a place were I could do loads of different things, and you know renaissance history had no relationship at all to other things that I did, and I chose it as my specialist subject, and it was a kind of wonderful choice. I never felt pressured to narrow my studies down here and that was wonderful.
[Heather] There are a lot of places in Liverpool named after slave owners, such as Parr Street, Blackburne Place and the iconic Penny Lane. There’s an upcoming referendum to change the name of our Roscoe and Gladstone halls, we wanted to know what your opinions were concerning this?
I think the very worst that can come out of this is that people understand that the Gladstone family were one of the biggest slave owning families in the history of this country. They were the family that received more compensation at the end of slavery than any other family, estimated around 80 million pounds in today’s money. John Gladstone was not only an infamous slave owner, he then pioneered the Indian indenture labour system, a form of indentured peonage that was used to replace slavery in Guyana, and he was an entirely awful man, and William Gladstone, in his first, maiden speech in Parliament was in defence of the slave trade. Now there’s lots of reasons not to like William Ewat Gladstone, his Xenophobia, his what we now call Islamophobia, there’s lots and lots of reasons, but there’s also reasons to admire him. What I’m interested in is an honest and whole hearted full breadth acknowledgement of people’s history. My main problem is with the idea of heroes, and there’s lots of reasons, there’s lots of things that were impressive about William Ewat Gladstone, there are things that are reprehensible. My problem is is that the memorialisations, statues, are not about history, they’re about saying these people are good and you should only remember the good aspects of them, that’s juvenile. I don’t understand why you’d would want to use, out of all places, to look to History for comforting myths. History’s actually full of warnings, and cautionary tales, not comforting myths. I think the good that could come out of these campaigns is a more mature relationship with our history. The danger is is that we don’t talk about history. We actually use these debates to have culture wars, debates about identity politics, I fear that’s what’s happened in Colston in Bristol, and with Rhodes must fall.
[Jess] It’s funny you should say that, the next question branching off from that is what are your opinions on the Rhodes must fall and the Colston campaign in Bristol?
Well I think it’s a classic example of us not talking about history. What happened in the Rhodes must fall campaign is that people who opposed Rhodes collated a collection of his nastiest, most racist statements, and people who supported him did the opposite and they found his warmer, more fluffy statements, and they said look he wasn’t a racist. Well I don’t care whether he was a racist, I care about what he did, and what he did was he unleashed a militarised police force against the people of Southern Africa, and was responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths. We haven’t talked about that, so the problem with the Rhodes must fall campaign, and I think it was badly organised and badly run, was that they’ve still not done the actual case producing the dossier against Cecile Rhodes. I don’t care what he said, what he thought, I care about what he did, and he was arguably a war criminal. They’re crimes against humanity, he’s not somebody who was seen at the time as being an exemplar of having standard views, he was opposed radically at his time. This idea that Rhodes represented late 19th century public opinion is nonsense. Famously, he was outmanoeuvred by three kings from Botswana who came into the country, won over public support, and prevented Bechuanaland land becoming part of Rhodes’ territory. They were able to do that because a lot of people thought he was a monster in the 1890’s. We need to have a more mature view of our history, and what’s happening and the reason this is getting swept into identity politics is it’s about pointing fingers and calling people racists. Of course he was a racist, everyone was a racist, almost everyone was a racist in the late 19th century. It’s silly to use terms like white supremacy to describe people in the 18th and 19th century. I’m interested in what people did, not what they said, not whether they were nice or nasty, but what they did, and Rhodes was a reprehensible character and most people thought this at the time.
[Jess] How did your previous work and research lead you back to Liverpool, to 62 Falkner Street in particular?
Well it wasn’t my research, it was the research of a woman called Naomi who found the house. I did a degree in open history, and I was asked by the BBC if I would present a series about houses. They found 62 Falkner Street. Now to be fair the number of houses in Falkner Street that could’ve been chosen were half the street, because it’s a place that’s been on this incredible roller coaster journey, from being expensive, posh houses for the rich in the 1840’s, to being a street of slum houses by the 1950’s, 1960’s. So, the street itself gave you this incredible range of stories. The house was chosen out of all the many houses we could’ve chosen because no one family stays there very long. People staying there slows down the story telling. Lots of decades passed and change and this family remains the same. Falkner Street, 62, didn’t have that. That’s why it was chosen. I was just really pleased that it was back in Liverpool, and so I was able to present this series in the city I’d spent three years in, and by the subject I’d done a masters degree in, so it was a very immersive experience. It also meant that I spent two months back in Liverpool. Most people graduate from the city and never get a chance, unless they go to London to spend two months there again. I left Liverpool in the early 90’s because there was no way, I didn’t want to leave, but there was no work here at all, I had no choice but to leave and end up in the south. I was from the north, I went to a northern university deliberately because I wanted to stay in the north. I ended up in the south for the reasons of generation after generation of people from the north have ended up in the south, because of the bias of the economy being weighted to the south. So to be able to spend two months back in Liverpool was wonderful.
[Heather] I actually lived on Falkner Square last year, so it was really exciting.
I used to go to parties on Falkner Square and I think I said in one of the newspaper articles, I didn’t really notice how grand the houses we lived in as students were. Friends would come from other cities and go ‘why do you guys live in these mansions?’ There was like fourteen of us in the little mansions, you have a very small part of a mansion. [laughs] It was funny because friends would come from other cities, and we got so use to living in these huge, high ceilings, and complaining about how cold they were. They are far too cold.
[Jess] What did you do whilst you were here for the two months, did you do anything nostalgic?
We filmed everyday and I wondered around being nostalgic, yeah.
[Heather] I noticed you did a lot of filming at the Quarter cafe.
It’s lovely yeah. I did a lot of walking around, but I mean filming is very intense. I saw a few friends, people still living here, a friend Richard Benjamin who owns the slavery museum, and just enjoyed being in Liverpool.
[Heather] What’s the responses to ‘A House Through Time’ been like?
It’s been a huge success. The series has been watched by 2 million, well 3 million if you include iplayer per episode, that’s still increasing. We’re gonna do another series, so it’s been a real success. We’re going to do the North East, Newcastle, somewhere on the Tyne, Newcastle or Gateshead.
[Jess] So can you see this being a series that carries on in different areas of the north, or the country in general?
I’d love it to be because it does something that is really important. It takes the BBC for four hours of primetime television into parts of the country that very often feel that they don’t get their fair share. I mean Liverpool was the second city of the empire, I don’t think it gets its fair bite of the cherry. I mean maybe it does, maybe if you counted the hours in accordance to the population, but it’s not really about numbers it’s about perception. Liverpool is a really proud place, and it feels that it should be taken notice of, and I really like the swagger of Liverpool, it reminds me of Newcastle. It means that cities like Newcastle and Liverpool get to be shown off to the rest of the country for four hours in a big series. I think that’s great, and the last city we should be doing is London [laughs], it has too many bites of too many cherries. But it’s great that we can go to Liverpool and now Newcastle, hopefully somewhere else, like Scotland or Wales, and make a fuss of them.
[Jess] So ‘A House Through Time’ in London is gonna be the bottom of the list?
Series ten.[Laughs] Except for, you know, you could do the east end, you could do Canning Town. We mustn’t forget about London, it has the richest but also very often it’s had the poorest people in the country as well. So, I mean, I don’t think it’s the case now, but I mean it used to be that Tower Hamlets had some of the worst deprivation in this country. The fact that you’re near Kensington and Belgravia doesn’t mean that you’re not deprived, Grenfell Tower shows us that.
[Jess] How did it feel to be awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Liverpool in 2017? Did you enjoy your graduation in July?
It was wonderful, and it was wonderful for my mum who pushed her kids to all go to university as a single parent on a council estate at the time. For my mum to be there for a second graduation when she was there for my first, 25 years later, having seen how all her hard work and nurturing, to see the fruits of that, not just through me but through my brothers and sisters was wonderful for her. So it was wonderful for my mother, and for my three-year-old daughter who shouted daddy throughout the entire thing. And my daughter today was talking about the silly hat daddy had to wear, which is her best memory. She can’t pronounce Liverpool, but when I said I was going to Liverpool she said ‘are you going to have to wear your silly hat again?’. It was lovely, it was an honorary degree, it was an honour.
Were you involved in any student media?
I don’t think it was called the Sphinx, but I wrote music reviews.
[Jess] I think there used to be a Guild newsletter.
It was definitely a paper, I’ve just moved house, and somewhere I saw loads of my old newspaper articles.
[Jess] We recently celebrated our 1000th article online, as we’re predominantly online. We went into the archives in the Sydney Jones Library and got all the previous papers that were written for the Sphinx. But about 5 years ago we were under LSMedia?
It was even before then. Whatever incarnation the student paper was, that was the first thing I ever wrote for, I wrote music reviews. Then I was excused of hating music, because I thought they were all crap, all the records that I was ever asked to review. I said that Blur were rubbish and I was right about that. But yeah it was the first thing I ever wrote.
Have you got any advice for those who want to work in the media?
The best advice I was ever given, Tv, Radio, the media, it’s like a fortress. Once you get over the wall and you’re moving around the inside it’s easy. It’s just getting over the walls. You know some of it’s just about being there, my strategy was to just stay in the building. If things aren’t going the way you want them to, being there, there’s more chance of things happening if you’re in the building.
[Jess] Well I was considering ambushing you if you didn’t message us back.
[Laughs] That’s exactly the spirit.
Thank you so much for giving us some of your time, we have loved meeting you!