The summer of broken boundaries

The West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s inspired great pride in Britain’s black youth. A

Some years ago, I was returning late at night to a London hotel. As I stepped out of the taxi, I realised that the man emerging from the cab ahead of mine had, even in silhouette, an unmistakably fluid gait. Clive Lloyd was shorter than I had imagined, but as he loped towards me I stuck out my hand. "Thank you," I said. I wasn't sure how to explain why I was thanking him but he smiled genially and went on his way, as if no explanation were necessary.

Lloyd was the captain of the all-conquering West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. He was a man blessed with a dignity that opponents immediately respected and he also possessed the diplomatic skills that enabled him to lead and discipline a group of supremely talented individuals who hailed from Jamaica in the north to Guyana in the south. Under his captaincy, the West Indies cricket team developed into the finest team in the world and a source of great pride not only for those in the Caribbean but for many in Britain.

Between 1948 and 1962, nearly quarter of a million West Indians migrated to Britain. The possibility of improved employment and educational opportunities in the "mother country" encouraged thousands to pack up their belongings and chance a future on the other side of the Atlantic. It is now part of the national narrative that this pioneer generation was not welcomed into the bosom of British society with open arms. Samuel Selvon's novel The Lonely Londoners (1956) superbly captures the grim weather, hard faces and social isolation that greeted many of these hopeful migrants. As the myth of British "fair play" was cast aside and the realities of prejudice and discrimination became evident, West Indians were able to comfort themselves by looking to the increasingly skilful displays of their cricketers, whose visits to Britain began to have a kind of ambassadorial significance.

In 1950, the West Indies team, under the stew­ardship of a white captain, achieved a notable series victory in England, and the team was immortalised in a Lord Kitchener calypso refrain, "Cricket, lovely cricket". However, when the team visited again in 1957, it was soundly defeated. It returned in 1963, this time with a black captain, Frank Worrell, and there were now enough West Indians in Britain to ensure significant groups of supporters at all grounds. A carnival-like following greeted the team both on and off the pitch.

As a five-year-old, I knew all about Garfield Sobers, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, Wes Hall, Rohan Kanhai, Charlie Griffith, Conrad Hunte and the other players, for in my house these were names that were whispered with an almost biblical reverence. When the West Indies came to play at Headingley in Leeds, the door to the house seemed to be open to a permanent crush of relatives and guests. I remember the excitement as my parents prepared to go out to a celebratory dance at which the players would be present. My own sporting world was dominated by Leeds United and an admiration for Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner. However, I understood that my parents were tolerating, not encouraging, my passion for this inelegant sport.

Much to their disappointment, I never developed a schoolboy passion for either watching or playing cricket. After all, the Yorkshire I grew up in firmly rejected the idea of anybody who hadn't been born in Yorkshire playing for the county. While other teams were eager to sign up "foreign" players from home and abroad, Yorkshire County Cricket Club remained stubbornly insular. By the mid-1970s, however, cricket had once again caught my attention. It was not English county cricket that had fired my imagination, but the exploits of the latest incarnation of the West Indies team.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, it became clear that the second generation - the children of the pioneering migrants - was not being properly assimilated into British society. Clashes with the police, exacerbated by overuse of the "sus" laws (which enabled the police to stop and search individuals at random), plus underachievement in the education system and discrimination in employment practices, had left a generation of black Britons feeling frustrated. But this generation was determined that it would not be pushed around. Britain was home and, as the poet Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in." He might have added "whether they want to or not".

As the second generation began to assert its British identity, it also searched for its "roots". While some turned to Africa, most looked to the islands that their parents had migrated from. Reggae music provided the soundtrack for the times. The second generation also looked to the West Indies cricket team, which, under Lloyd's leadership, was shaking off the pejorative label of "calypso cricketers" and establishing itself as an intimidating and commanding side.

Nineteen seventy-six was a crucial year. The West Indies team, having soundly defeated India in a home Test series, arrived in England. The unusually hot weather provided the backdrop for the visit of a confident team that, in Test after Test, tore into England. Before the start of the series, England's South African-born captain, Tony Greig, had unwisely declared that he hoped to make the West Indians "grovel". The team regarded this as a grave insult. As Vivian Richards puts it: "We took it seriously. Very, very seriously."

Soon enough, the uncompromising aggression that the West Indies team was displaying on the cricket field was being mirrored on
the streets of Britain. Throughout the spring and summer, tension between the black community and the police had been rising. This culminated in violent disturbances at the Notting Hill Carnival in August.

What Stevan Riley's new documentary, Fire in Babylon, makes clear is the extent to which the West Indian cricketers were aware of what was happening in Britain and the role they were playing in this chapter of British social history. "If the West Indies lose," says Michael Holding, "[West Indians] are even afraid to go to work because they know that their workmates will start abuse." Gordon Greenidge talks of wanting "to give the West Indians in England something to hold on to". Lloyd, Richards and Andy Roberts echo these sentiments with quietly stated eloquence and talk about their responsibility towards the people "who were looking up to you".

This sense of a link between West Indian cricket and British social history (and inequality) had already been established by Learie Constantine, who played Lancashire league cricket in the 1930s and also represented the West Indies. In 1954, Constantine published a book on racial prejudice in Britain entitled Colour Bar. Worrell had spoken out about the conditions facing West Indian immigrants in the 1950s. But 1976 proved to be a perfect storm, when the brashness of black British youth was married to the fearless determination of a young West Indian cricket team, as the empire struck back.

The West Indies team continued to dominate the game for another decade, during which time the second generation began slowly to enter the media, politics and the professions. Second-generation civil unrest on the streets of Britain continued into the 1980s, but as the hinge of generation continued to turn, black British youths began to move further away from the Caribbean, in their imaginations and loyalties. When Norman Tebbit proposed his "cricket test" in 1990, it was already irrelevant as the clumsy words fell from his lips.

It is now 35 years since Lloyd's touring team filled a generation with pride. In a Britain that was still plagued with social and economic problems and that seemed to have lost sight of us - its non-white citizens - as being anything other than a problem, the West Indies team of 1976 appeared as a resolute army, with power and creative genius in equal measure. It was fired by more than just a will to win; there was also the responsibility of representation that, to them, appeared not to be a burden. Indeed, thank you.

Caryl Phillips's next book, "Colour Me English", will be published by Harvill Secker in August
“Fire in Babylon" (12A) is on nationwide release from 20 May

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood