Hilary Arnott Tribute

Speech at memorial for Hilary Arnott at Friends House, NW1 on 31 January 1995 (Race & Class 36/4,  April 1995)


Thank you for letting me remember Hilary with you. Grief needs to be shared to be borne, and remembrance must renew our will to fight for the things Hilary fought for. And so I will not sully the memory of her going with high-faluting praise or grave solemnity. Hilary liked truth and Hilary liked fun.

I first met her at some sort of office party some twenty-five years ago. She had joined the Institute of Race Relations a little while earlier, as editorial assistant (I was the Institute’s librarian at the time). But we were a big organisation then, with some forty or so staff – stretched over three buildings in the heart of Piccadilly, in the Fortnum and Mason belt, not, as now, in the precincts of Pentonville – and we had not met till that party. I remember asking her for a cigarette.’Say please’, she said, in that high-pitched, upper-class voice of hers, in which authority sits like a red rag to a bull. ‘Bugger you’, I said, digging deep into my colonial education. We were friends after that. We got closer still when, with a few other like-minded people, we began to question the elitist, high-handed way in which the Institute treated its staff.

There was always that about Hilary – that curious sensitivity to injustice – curious, because it was not just a hatred of injustice but a distaste for it: it went against her grain, it was not in the order of human things: to be human was to be just. Her commitment came from that – that natural, simple, instinctive dislike of un-justness. And the way she fought it was also simple and direct and within her means, not flam­boyant or dramatic, not given to marches and demonstrations (though she was known, on occasion, to have mounted a mean picket or two) but giving, of her skills, her time, herself.

It was these qualities that won her the trust of her colleagues when we chose her to represent us on the Institute’s management council at a time when we were increasingly at odds with management. Over little things, at first, such as staff rights, and then over matters of policy and, finally, over the role of the Institute itself. The Institute was the only independent research and educational body on race relations anywhere in Britain at the time (or in Europe for that matter), but the research it did and the information it put out served, if only by default, to provide the government with the intellectual justification for its racist policies on immigration, and on Rhodesia, and South Africa.

The staff refused to collaborate in that exercise, to a woman, and Hilary carried that refusal to the council chamber – in the measure we had entrusted her with, no more, no less, representing our views, never intruding her own. We trusted her, you see, implicitly. Trust/Hilary, the same thing, synonyms. We trusted her, as I say, to take our fight to the management council, but we also knew that she would not be fazed by the lords and ladies of humankind who ran the Institute at the time. She was one of them, and they were afraid.

And when the battle against the bosses was finally won – it was a Pyrrhic victory, because they took all the money with them and left us with the library and two journals ( Race and Race Today) to run – it was Hilary’s skills and expertise that turned Race Today into a viable maga­zine and helped to transform Race into Race & Class and make it the most important Third World quarterly in the English-speaking world. By then, we had moved to a disused old warehouse in Pentonville Road. We had no money to pay the staff and they left, leaving a hand­ful of  us to  carry on as   best  we could.  Hilary  worked  for  virtually nothing, and then gave of her money too.

She believed in the work she and we were doing, fighting racial injustice, and the way we went about doing it – as a collective, without hierarchies, just and fair and equal among ourselves. Who we were and what we did were part of the same continuum. And work, we learnt, need never be stultifying when it’s a service.

Hilary grew through that experience, as we all did, and it set her future course in the service of other causes – on the Latin American Newsletter, in the Child Poverty Action Group, in the Legal Action Group – doing the simple, ordinary, caring things that human beings are meant to do in an age when they no longer do them.

We put her on the Council of Management, then, made her our boss, knowing that we would be safe with her. And, from there, she went on to help us, not only on matters of policy and direction, but on every single project we were involved in which required her skill and guidance.

Yes, Hilary was a growing person. She took her ups and downs in her stride — not in her first stride, or even her second, but in her third, perhaps, or fourth. Of course, she railed against her unhappinesses, her disappointments, her losses – cried, broke down, became miserable. But. then, she got up and got on with it, accepting everything that had happened to her, making it grist to her mill, the stuff of her growth.

Even at the end, when she was suspended between hope and hopelessness, she managed to put forth a bud or two, resolved to make a fist of her life, renew herself, set up home again in her new flat. She had begun to say yes to life, another sort of life, diminished but not extinguished, when death took her.

In the words of Dylan Thomas, whose poems she liked me to read to her in my Sri Lankan/Welsh accent, ‘Time held her green and dying. And she sang in her chains like the sea’.