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Maggie Brown: Bristol Old Vic revamp shows essential lessons for the future often lie in our past

Bristol Old Vic’s new entrance and foyer, which opens in September. Image: Haworth Tompkins Bristol Old Vic’s new entrance and foyer, which opens in September. Image: Haworth Tompkins
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I’ve been following the revamp of the Bristol Old Vic very closely, and its efforts to acknowledge its historic links to the prosperity that led to it being built in 1766. I hope to get to see its play, The Meaning of Zong, about a slave-ship massacre.

This is because I too owe a debt to slave trader Edward Colston, attending Colston’s Girls’ School in the 1960s, when it was a powerhouse of academic teachers, sending its highly selected teenagers to top universities.

It had been set up in the 1890s with funding from the endowment Colston created in the 17th century, and our building had a spectacular stained-glass window, depicting watery scenes, including dolphins protecting him. We were expected to thank him. One wonderful benefit was that as we were a Colston foundation, there were countless free tickets on offer to the Old Vic and it was there I watched the first rock’n’roll version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Bristol in the 1960s buzzed with theatrical treats and was a crucible for new playwrights, led by a local journalist, one Tom Stoppard.

My father was from proud Bristol stock, and my upbringing was suffused with this sense of good fortune to be born and bred in this city. The headteacher at junior school gave lessons to 10-year-olds on the wonders of the triangular trade: trinkets exchanged for slaves, tobacco and sugar from the plantations returning to Bristol to fill bonded warehouses. There was no message I recall that this human trade was repugnant.

Colston’s Girls’ School had an annual November commemoration, and took over the cathedral to chant, “Let us now praise famous men”, and hear readings from his bequest. By now, we had seen diagrams of how the boats were packed with slaves. I have never joined the old girls at this event.

One ex-pupil and contemporary is the novelist Philippa Gregory, whose historical novels (The Other Boleyn Girl) include A Respectable Trade, made into a BBC series in 1998. Born in Nairobi, she was a constant critic of the school and a life-time campaigner about the city fathers’ denial. A Respectable Trade is a love story between a slave merchant’s wife and a house slave, which ends tragically.

The Old Vic does not share the burden of the Colston name. Yet so much of the pleasurable ambience of Bristol, elegant Clifton, Colston Steps, the sweep of Whiteladies Road and Blackboy Hill are reminders of where much wealth came from. Colston Hall is changing its name. Colston’s Girls’ School is not. I think it is fitting to retain the slave trader’s name. It is one way of learning from the past, and making us sensitive to potential modern blind spots – including accepting what may become tomorrow’s dubious benefactions.

At least the legacy of Colston’s Girls’ School makes me an ideal theatre attender. We were tutored never to sneeze, cough or eat in a public meeting. At The Importance of Being Earnest in the Strand last Friday, I dug my nails into my thigh. And remained silent.

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