A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: After frothiness comes leadenness

Dee has followed his celebrated topical satire The Privileges with a double portrait that's tighter in focus and smaller in scale.

A Thousand Pardons
Jonathan Dee
Corsair, 288pp, £14.99

The American writer Jonathan Dee has followed his celebrated topical satire The Privileges, about a heartless New York couple, with a double portrait that’s tighter in focus and smaller in scale; a swift-moving, incident-rich comedy that opens with an 18-year marriage being demolished by a verbal blow. The scene of the crime is a marriage counsellor’s office – a room that Adam Morey, the husband in the last novel, refused on principle to enter. “In the world of finance,” he told himself, “the most highly evolved people were the ones for whom even yesterday did not exist.” But Ben Armstead is in a more accountable, backwards-looking world – the law – and in a novel more concerned with the collection of regrets and foibles that Adam dismissed as “baggage”.

Written with colloquial fluency, in a third person that leaps between points of view, A Thousand Pardons is about what happens when a husband turns to his wife and says, “I would like to wake up tomorrow next to someone who has no idea who I am,” adding by way of caution, “If anybody uses the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ right now I swear to God I am back here with a gun and shooting this place up like Columbine,” before stating a preference for “existential crisis”. One immediate effect of this outburst – and the lawbreaking, civil-suit-bringing behaviour that follows – is the uncertainty into which it plunges not Ben’s future, the prospect of which he claimed to loathe, but that of his comparably well-adjusted wife Helen, whose days as a popular housewife are “shot to hell” (“less by scandal than the toxicity of pity”).

At this point, the novel, its opening moves apparently influenced by Sidney Lumet’s cold satire Network (a man who’s had enough says so), mutates into the literary counterpart of a film almost opposite in outlook. Helen is 43 years old when, newly single, newly in need of an income, she takes the commuter train to Manhattan in search of employment – she’s a little younger than Jane Fonda in the soft-centred, pop-feminist screwball comedy 9 to 5, but her fate of selfrealisation through professional achievement is much the same. Having been a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond (“She’d even written some stories for the local weekly”), Helen finds herself a fish out of water, her misconceptions about life on dry land receiving “the exaggerated patience usually reserved for dealing with the very old”. But it isn’t long before she finds a job at a shabby but charming company, Harvey Aaron Public Relations, and not much longer before she turns it around. You can almost hear the strings when Helen’s new boss thanks her for bringing “new life” to “the whole enterprise” and Helen replies, “You’ve revitalised my enterprise, too.”

There’s more than a dash of the wish-fulfilment fantasy to Helen’s siege of New York, corresponding to a laziness of invention on the part of her creator. In Barnet Kellman’s comedy Straight Talk, a descendant of 9 to 5, it was plausible that the Southern cornball wisdom spouted by Dolly Parton’s character would make her an ideal host of a radio phone-in show. The idea that troubles with Ben have equipped Helen ideally for PR, that her essential naivety brings something distinctive to a cynical game, though similar in shape, is poorly worked out in its detail.

Helen’s emergence as an innovator in “crisis management” depends on a one-size-fits-all strategy, urging her clients to apologise, on the strength of which a multinational, Malloy Worldwide, hires her when it might just have copied her. Dee anticipates a resistance to these developments but by having Helen reflect that she does not “completely” understand why a particular instance of her “apology wrangling” had worked and having the big shot Teddy Malloy inform her, “Not many people . . . can do what you do. Nor can they be taught to do it,” he is likely to win round only the sort of reader who didn’t smell anything fishy to begin with.

If the novel lacks the technical rigour of pop-feminist screwball, it hopes to complicate its ethical picture by adjusting its lopsided view of gender relations. Raised as a Catholic, Helen is described in terms of holy traces (one character claims to get a “nun hit” off her). But she doesn’t appear interested in whether her husband, after a series of all too human mistakes (telling the truth, harassing an intern, drunkenly crashing his car), deserves a second chance, even though their adopted daughter, Sara, isn’t exactly thriving in a single-parent household and appears unambiguous in her preference for flawed father over “capital-H Humble” mother.

It’s even implied that Helen’s “talent for inducing apology” is a merely “lucrative” one, predicated on the insight, canny rather than pure-hearted, that human beings only condemn when denied the opportunity to forgive. Neither Helen’s conscience nor her success seems to be affected by the sincerity or otherwise of her clients’ confessions. Despite the emphasis on the illusory and stagemanaged, Dee is also concerned with the idea of genuine forgiveness, in particular the forgiveness Helen withholds from Ben.

The book’s title draws on the double meaning of “pardon”, as something granted as well as proffered, and there’s a tautness both to the book’s vocabulary and its whole thematic arrangement, which gives a crisp clarity to the early pages but which becomes naggy and claustrophic once connections – between PR and Catholicism, say – begin to pile up. After frothiness comes leadenness. If A Thousand Pardons still manages to be engaging and even winning, it is a testament to a set of comic gifts – mordant wit, control of tone – that are powerful enough to defeat its author’s self-destructive urges and his habit of drawing on established forms (featherweight comedy, moral parable) without adequately warding off their dangers.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic 

Aspirations: a shop window in Manhattan, 2008. Photograph: Erin Toland "Longing".

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Alamy
Show Hide image

David Olusoga's look at a forgotten history shows there's always been black in the Union Jack

Black and British: A Forgotten History addresses one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Nineteen eighty-four was a transformative year for David Olusoga. Then a young teenager, he was driven out of his council home, together with his grandmother, mother, two sisters and younger brother, by a sustained campaign of nightly stoning of their windows. When Olusoga recalled the experience before television cameras last year, he wept. His book is a product of that childhood terror, and partly an exploration of his condition as a black Briton. As he states, “The oral history of 20th-century racial violence has never been collected or collated, but it is there and it is shocking.”

Nineteen eighty-four affected him in another way: the publication of Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain introduced him to the scholarship needed to understand his position in Britain. Fryer’s book was monumental, inspiring conferences, publications, the setting up of local history groups, the establishment of Black History Month, and radio and television programmes. It began to alter (slightly) the history curriculum at university level: the first undergraduate one-year course on black British history and culture was taught at the University of Warwick in 1984. It was an apt university to experiment with such developments, since Lord Scarman, who reported on the Brixton riots of 1981, was its chancellor.

Olusoga patterns his narrative after Fryer’s, starting with the North African presence in Roman Britain. He updates Fryer, citing radioisotope analysis of skeletons and craniometrics, which support written documentation of Aurelian Moors guarding Hadrian’s Wall and settling in places such as Yorkshire. Indeed, third-century York may have been more ethnically and racially diverse than present-day York. Roman writers such as Pliny who chronicled – or rather fabricated – African life shaped perceptions of a continent populated by anthropophagi and other fantastic creatures, half-human, half-animal. John Mandeville, whose travelogue (circa 1356) was one of the most widely translated books of the later Middle Ages, presented Africans as naked savages living amid heaps of gold to which they gave no value.

And so, equipped with the fruits of Islamic learning (new navigational instruments, books on astronomy and trigonometry), European explorers set sail for Africa to relieve the natives of their gold. Pope Nicholas V gave his blessing, so long as the Vatican benefited. In the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of pounds of gold were shipped to Europe. But slaves were more valuable, so the British fought the Spanish for a share in the trade and eventually came to dominate it. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was granted the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, a right then passed on to the South Sea Company. The “South Sea bubble”, the greatest financial crash of the 18th century, was intimately connected to Britain’s dealings with Africa, though this is rarely acknowledged by historians.

The Royal African Company, established by Charles II in 1672, eventually enslaved and transported more Africans than any other company in British history. It built slave forts on the African coast, some such as Bunce Island in Sierra Leone furnished with a “rape house”. Separated from home and family and landed in the West Indies (countless numbers dying of suffocation during the journey, given that the people traffickers were packing the holds to maximise profits), the Africans had no recourse to the law, much less the conscience of their captors. The Barbados slave code of 1661 stripped Africans of all human rights, and set out ways in which they were to be punished, to exert control over their labour (mutilation of the face, slitting of nostrils, castration, execution). After decades of complaints, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly in 1712 and, Olusoga writes, “Independent traders were turned loose upon the shores of Africa.” These traders had argued (“stone-blind to irony”) that the right to enslave Africans was “a defining feature of English freedom” and that the Royal African Company had breached their status as free-born Englishmen. Eventually, 11,000 separate British slave-trading expeditions resulted in the trafficking of three-and-a-half-million Africans to the New World plantations, the greatest forced migration in modern history until the 20th century.

How could Britain, a civilised and Christian nation, indulge in rape, torture, killing and the forced labour of Africans over two centuries? The answer is money. If you had spare cash or could borrow, investment in slavery was a sure winner, never mind slave rebellions or hurricanes that destroyed cane fields. Sugar was king: originally a luxury, it became one of the main sources of calories for the British poor. And so many hundreds of thousands of British workers were directly dependent on slavery (from sailors to those who built, rigged and repaired ships) that it was easy to turn a blind eye to the inhumanity. Once insignificant villages, great cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow sprang up on the profits of slavery.

But a group of 12 disciples of Christ set out to change things. In 1787, they met in London and set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They included Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery entrepreneur), Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Fired by religious feeling, they embarked on a campaign of public education and political lobbying “unprecedented in scale and revolutionary in nature”. Supported by African authors of slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, they held meetings all over the country, attracting huge crowds. Thousands of petitions were presented to parliament. Women, denied a meaningful role in politics, formed their own organisations, writing tracts, pamphlets and poems, gathering signatures for petitions and fundraising: “At certain times and in certain places they were the engine room of the movement.”

Abolition was the first mass philanthropic movement in Britain, and it ended the slave trade in 1807. It could have ended earlier, but the planter interests in parliament defeated William Wilberforce’s attempts. In 1796, a bill was defeated by only four votes: a group of abolitionist MPs went to the opera and missed the vote. Between that night at the opera and 1807, nearly 800,000 Africans were enslaved.

Women such as Elizabeth Heyrick continued to lobby for the abolition of slavery. They organised a boycott of sugar, produced more petitions and hosted meetings. It was such a brilliantly organised programme of mass protest that slavery was declared abolished in 1833: 46,000 slave owners were given £20m in compensation (£17bn in today’s money), the largest payout in British history and 40 per cent of all government spending that year. The enslaved Africans had to wait another five years for their freedom and were not given a penny.

Long after slavery ended in the British colonies, British people continued to lobby the American government to free their slaves. The many African-American abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, who visited Britain from the 1840s onwards, were well received and, again, thousands of people greeted them and raised money to support their cause.

The publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, swelled national sympathy for the plight of black slaves. More than a million copies were sold in Britain – cheap pirated versions reached a mass readership. The novel became the bestselling book of 19th-century Britain; it was adapted for the theatre and generated mass-produced merchandise – playing cards, jigsaws, tableware. Its extraordinary success rested upon the “foundation of sympathy… laid down during the previous 70 years of abolitionist activity in Britain”.

Yet American slave-produced raw cotton continued to feed the 4,500 mills of Lancashire. In 1860, cotton goods accounted for 40 per cent of all British exports. In 1861, the Economist stated that nearly four million people in Britain depended – directly and indirectly – on the cotton industry; a fifth of the entire population. When the American Civil War interrupted the supply of cotton, hundreds of thousands of British workers were made destitute, dependent on soup kitchens, and the British economy was “dealt a thunderous blow, all because an ocean away the forced labour of four million enslaved black Americans had been disrupted”. Needless to say, the national mood changed. The masses who once supported black freedom now campaigned for the Deep South.

Olusoga brilliantly reveals such contradictions in British society. In dealing with the black contribution to the First World War, for example, he cites popular gratitude and admiration for black Britons – among them Walter Tull, who fought on the Western Front. Tull played professional football for Northampton but instead of signing up for Glasgow Rangers, he enlisted. Rapidly promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, he led white British troops into action and died in 1918, having been mentioned in despatches and recommended for the Military Cross. And yet Africans and West Indians were banned from the victory parade in 1919. Anti-black riots broke out in Liverpool that year.

During the Second World War, thousands of black American soldiers stationed in Britain were befriended by white Britons who opposed efforts by the white military to segregate them. West Indians fought with the Allies – more than a hundred were decorated. And yet anti-black race riots broke out in 1948 in Liverpool and in 1958 in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill. The following decades were taken up with popular and political rhetoric about immigration and parliamentary acts to limit blacks coming to Britain.

Olusoga’s stated purpose is to argue that black British history is not about migration and settlement, whether of black servants in the 18th century or black workers in the Windrush era. It is about the centuries-long engagement with Africa, a consequence of which is the black presence in Britain. Olusoga has benefited from and added significantly to the work of Fryer and other historians such as James Walvin. He has discovered new and exciting research materials in African archives, among them the Register of Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, which list names, bodily details, ethnicity and origins, thus putting a human face on people otherwise treated as fodder and statistics. Such sources give his writing freshness, originality and compassion.

Like Fryer’s book, Olusoga’s will inspire and will come to be seen as a major effort to address one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Black and British: A Forgotten History
David Olusoga
Macmillan, 624pp, £25

David Dabydeen is a novelist, broadcaster, academic and co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear