Into this I was born …


I think it best to begin with a reflection. It’s a reflection about racism in Britain: I’m wondering if we should all start with the idea that rather than deny racism we should take the view that perhaps a majority of people in the UK are racist. In the place in which I worked for many many years I was used to hearing people say: ‘But I’m not racist.’ Sometimes though I would reply: ‘I think it would be remarkable in our culture not to be racist.’ My reflection was brought about while reading a brilliant novel. What novel? Well, I’ve been reading (slowly) Andrea Levy’s book ‘Small Island.’ It is a splendid and sobering read. Quite how the author managed to find such evocative and authentic ways of using the english language I do not know. Her style is remarkable – and her riveting characters are brought to life through her literary skills.

Her book explores the experiences of four people; two are Jamaican and two are English. (In fact, lots of other characters appear but the four main characters form the central core of the book.) Their lives in the two countries before the second world war, during the war itself and then the post-war years – especially 1948 – are described. And life, more generally for those other characters in both countries is also profiled. I was fascinated by the way the environing cultures were portrayed – especially because I was born into the post-war UK world that Andrea Levy describes.

Something features in her text that has been, to a certain extent, seemingly overcome in the modern contemporary UK. The people – almost all the people that we meet in her book – suffer; and, in the main they suffer hardship. They also suffer emotional hurt and pain. The England that Queenie and Bernard grew up in – lived and endured – was not an easy place in which to be. It was often uncomfortable – and not at all glamourous. And the Jamaicans, Hortense and Gilbert escaped their small island only to find themselves on a bigger small island – that was decidedly and horribly racist.

In many ways I was lucky because, before I had any real idea of the world around me, I was taken off to Singapore and spared the murk and gloom of postwar Britain. And in large part, I escaped the racism. My father played a hugely important role in this because (somehow) he decried racism. And my mother knew how ridiculous it always was to stereotype a people. In Singapore I lived amongst Europeans – and rubbed up against the places and spaces where different ethnicities got on with their lives. They were mainly Malay and Chinese. (The Chinese sculptures were simply spectacularly weird.) And I never heard my parents find fault with any of these different peoples.

But when I returned to England in 1956 it was clear – as Andrea Levy demonstrates – that racism was pretty much normal and pretty much everywhere. In Singapore I had been spared the unremitting social ‘programme’; put differently, and following Bourdieu, I had been spared this aspect of the habitus of the British. Racism and ethnocentrism were, for me, puzzling. But I was not spared some of the imagery that helped to create and sustain racism in British culture; there was an obvious imbalance in the media portrayals of black and white. And perhaps most significantly, it was in the speech and sentiments of so many white English people that I heard derogatory or nasty comments about, as they would say, ‘our coloured brethren.’

Andrea Levy includes several references to this kind of talk in her book. A striking feature of her text is that even in the late 1970s I would still hear groups of public service workers use the same language. (Whilst at the same time denying the fact that they were ‘racist.’)

Here is an episode that I have taken straight from her ‘Small Island’ which nicely captures the post-war reality. And the key point is that this social reality endured and continued to generate racist outlooks into the 1970s – and beyond …

We are in London. It is 1948. Gilbert, a black West Indian man born and raised in Jamaica, is trying to find work. He served in the RAF during the war and was based in the UK. He begins:

‘See me now: I am dressed no longer in my RAF uniform of blue but still, from the left, from the right, this West Indian man is looking just as fine in his best civilian suit. I have a letter of introduction from the forces labour exchange concerning a job as a store man. I take it to the office of the potential employer.

I enter and am greeted by an Englishman who smiles on me and shakes my hand.

Come in. Sit down,’ he tells me. A cup of tea is brought and placed beside me. All good signs – I have the job. I comfort myself. The man takes up the letter to read the contents. Everything is in order.

So you were in the RAF?’ he ask.

Yes, sir.

I was in the RAF. Where were you stationed?’ There then followed a short conversation about those days, before the man said: ‘Myself, I was in Falmouth’. For the next hour I am having to shift delicately on my seat and pinch myself so my eyes do not close, while this man acquaint me with his time on radar. On a pause between his breaths I shrewdly remind him of the job I had come to see him about. Was it to be mine?’

No sorry,‘ he say.

His explanation was that women were working in the same factory. Not understanding his meaning I said that I did not mind. He smiled and then he told me, ‘You see, we have white women working here. Now, in the course of your duties, what if you accidentally found yourself talking to a white woman?’ For a moment the man sounded so reasonable, so measured, I thought him to be talking sense.

I would be very courteous to her,’ I assured him.

But he shook his head. He wanted no answer from me. ‘I’m afraid all hell would break loose if the men found you talking to one of their women. They simply wouldn’t stand for it. As much as I’d like to I can’t give you the job. You must see the problem that it would cause.

Once my breath had returned enabling me to speak I asked him why he could not have told me this an hour before I still had feeling in my backside. He tell me he wanted to be kind to an ex-serviceman.’

And so it went on. Gilbert reports that ‘In five, no six places, the job had gone for, it vanish – with one look upon my face.’’

Even when he gets a job as a postal worker collecting and delivering mail in the Victoria district of London he meets terrifying and intimidating racism from fellow workers – and, for fear of losing his job, he decides that the best strategy is ‘hanging his head’ and simply bowing to the abuse.

I’ve been very interested in the culture of the United Kingdom ever since it became necessary for me to have some grasp of it in order to fill my professional role. I spent a lot of time listening to people talking about their attitudes including their attitudes towards immigrants. My sense remains that a part of the deep psyche of the white English (especially those aged 50 or more) – is that it is, at best, wary of ‘foreigners,’ and at worst cruelly racist.

Andrea Levy’s book is brilliant because it reveals the limited sympathies of the people of the United Kingdom.

Post Script

The photograph at the top of this post features the great American jazz and blues artist Billie Holiday singing the song,  ‘Strange fruit‘.

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