Observer column: 21 October 2016
Last weekend, we celebrated the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. As well as re-enactments at Battle Abbey, in Hastings we had a colourful community procession through the town, followed by the bonfire procession and spectacular fireworks in the evening (supported and part-funded by Hastings Council).
The weekend's events also ended the council-curated ROOT 1066 creative arts festival, which gained national attention and left us well-placed for future cultural funding. The festival programme ranged from the Chris Levine laser spectacular on the pier, to events organised by schools and community groups in the most deprived parts of town. The festival emphasised participation, with activities such as the new PUSH community opera, the CLASH choral performance, and the 'I am a Norman' living history project. Through the festival, over two thousand local people participated in these events, with tens of thousands more in audiences.
So it's worth reflecting on the event we were commemorating and what its legacy has been. The battle itself was a bloody affair: over 5,000 combatants were killed, a tragedy we shouldn't forget. But that Norman victory changed everything, not just for Britain, but for the whole of western culture. A lot of what we are today - our culture, our art, our laws - stems from that fateful day. Even our language holds within it the origins of oppression and class. We have Norman words for meat, such as pork, beef and mutton. But we have Saxon words for farm animals, such as pig, cow and sheep. The defeated Saxons as servants tended and raised the farm animals, but the Normans ate them. The legacy of that is still with us: many of the country's richest landowners can trace their inherited wealth back to those victorious Norman knights, who were given land by William after he decreed that all land belonged to him, rather than to the people.
Over the last 950 years, these different cultures and languages have however become largely integrated. It's impossible now to distinguish between who of us has Norman roots and who has Saxon roots - see the 'I am a Norman' project, illustrated through posters in bus stops in Hastings town centre for examples of that. And since then, there have been many waves of further, generally less violent and oppressive, immigration. Roma travellers in the sixteenth century, through French Huguenots in the seventeenth century, Russian Jews in the late nineteenth century, Polish immigrants after the second world war, south Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s and 60s, Ugandan Asians, the Vietnamese Boat People, eastern Europeans from within the EU, to refugees from the Syrian conflict, have found a welcome on our shores, and have made their homes here.
Every one of those phases of immigration, from Normans through to eastern Europeans, has brought with it new words, new customs, new food, and new cultures. And as time goes by, they become absorbed into our indigenous culture, language and history. The nature of 'Britishness' is a product of all these, we owe what we are to immigration, and our culture will continue to develop because of it. So it seems particularly important that we should welcome immigrants and refugees here in Hastings, not just now, but in the future too. Our lives and culture will be enriched from it, as they have been for a thousand years.
Council Leader's column