Nixon: The first president of whom A M Homes was conscious
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Kids in America

The novelist A M Homes grew up in late-1960s Washington DC amid race riots and the sexual revolution. Here, she remembers a city like no other.

The writing of a novel is an act of the imagination predicated on the belief that it is possible to invent something out of nothing, and that by sheer will and careful selection of words, details and events, one can create lives out of whole cloth. It only works if one believes it can be done – it requires a leap of faith akin to Philippe Petit walking the high wire; there is no room for self doubt. That said, a novelist develops over time, many years spent absorbing, observing, processing. And so when one is asked where a novel comes from, one is faced with a curious process of unpacking the social, cultural and personal seeds that were the fodder for the book.

I think of myself as someone who is truly a fiction writer. My stories are not thinly veiled versions of real life, they are not based on friends and family. But the books do come out of my own experience, my efforts to make sense of the world around me, both on an intimate and much larger social scale.

A novel bridges the gap between the known and the unknown – it is in that space between things that it accrues its power. The novel is not a record of what literally happened but a sketch of what may have happened, what still might happen; it is an illustration of the gap between our public and private selves. At its best, it is an illumination of who we are.

I consider my work to be deeply American – I think of it along the lines of the work of artists such as Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman, or film-makers such as Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers – simultaneously serious and satirical.

I was born in Washington DC during a snowstorm in December 1961. My birth was illegitimate: my biological father was married with children, my biological mother much younger and unmarried. Their affair was long and tumultuous. I imagine it against the backdrop of the Kennedy era, the “Great Society” and the postwar expansion of the American Dream. I imagine their affair dipping into a fantasy world where all things are possible. I imagine my biological father with a swaggering sense of machismo, bravura about what it means to be a man, and possessed by the notion that he can have it all – “all” in this instance being a life, a wife and a mistress. My mother was a young woman trying to find herself as women’s roles were beginning to change. I imagine bouffant hairdos, cocktail parties, the loosening of the social formality of the 1950s, a feeling of prosperity and, with the advent of the birth-control pill, the dawn of the sexual revolution. For context, consider that 1961 sees the publication of Joseph Heller’s darkly comic novel Catch-22 and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, the great novel of suburban aspiration and alienation. The Cuban missile crisis would take place the following year. These are the literary and cultural seeds that birthed me.

I grew up on the edge of Washington DC, a city unlike any other place in America: the nation’s capital, yet it had no power to govern, no vote, no senators and no voice. It was a divided city, too – by day filled with white bureaucrats who worked for the government and who left at dusk. In the 1960s, the residents of Washington were mostly black. It exploded into riots after the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King. In response, President Lyndon Johnson ordered thousands of federal troops to bring order. Marines with machine guns stood on the steps of the capitol; soldiers guarded the White House. The FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, suggested that the rioters should be shot. It was the largest occupation of Washington since the civil war. By the time it ended four days later there had been more than 6,000 arrests and more than 1,200 buildings had been burned. It took decades for the city to recover, economically and perhaps more importantly spiritually.

At the age of seven I was aware of a great sense of sadness, of a dream dashed, the implosion of hope and a wave of overwhelming failure. My mother was a volunteer in the DC public- school system. The children would pat her hair – so different from their own – and say, “Mrs Homes, you got good hair.” Politically active liberals, we were a family who marched on Washington and didn’t eat iceberg lettuce or green grapes because they weren’t picked by union workers. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that the union leader and civil rights activist César Chávez had nothing to do with caesar salad.

I got my political feet wet in 1968 working for Hubert H Humphrey’s presidential campaign. With a friend whose father was well-placed in the political landscape, I’d hunker down after school in a basement and make “HHH” memorabilia – key chains, glass ashtrays, all painted with a red, white and blue “HHH”, which we then sold door to door. We believed we could make a difference.

Our neighbours were diplomats with immunity. They parked their cars wherever they wanted – they didn’t have to pay parking tickets – their children behaved badly at school and occasionally, in a bid for attention, they stole things, like our bicycles. We could see our bikes at the top of a nearby driveway, but no one could do anything. The local police couldn’t even knock on the door and ask for their return.

Nixon was the first president of my conscious life –he loomed large in the period 1969- 74, my most formative years. We often encountered his two teenage daughters and their secret service agents as they shopped for shoes in the local department stores, and the President himself on class trips to the White House, where we played on the enormous green lawn while Nixon welcomed various heads of state.

In our neighbourhood, almost everyone’s parents except mine worked for the government. The CIA and FBI went door to door gathering information, like little old ladies collecting for charity. They wanted to know if we’d noticed anything strange at the neighbours’ houses, people coming and going at odd hours, people from other places (or did they say “races”?). There were oddities – war planes parked beneath trees in Rock Creek Park, which was just behind our house, or hippies camping out in our basement as they came to town to protest.

In 1972, Nixon made his celebrated trip to China –he described it as the week that changed the world – and when he returned a friend and I were taken out of school and to the national zoo to see First Lady Pat Nixon welcome the gift of two giant pandas. I remember a news camera being aimed in my direction and a nice news lady asking, “What do you think of the new giant pandas? Already disillusioned, I said, “Well, they’re not really very big, are they?”

My parents took me on marches against the war and to Leonard Bernstein’s anti-inaugural “concert for peace” in 1972 at the National Cathedral. It was a cold January night and we stood outside the packed cathedral on the street with thousands of others listening to Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – all of it very dramatic, and a powerful signal that something had to change.

My own social and moral development evolved alongside the American people’s growing awareness that our government wasn’t really “by the people for the people” but a series of off-the-record relationships and deals made in back rooms. The older brothers of my classmates had to register for the military draft as they graduated from high school and be prepared to fight in a war that they were opposed to. Others conscientiously objected and some left the country for a safe haven in Canada. It was a complex personal coming of age that ran parallel to a large-scale redefinition of American political culture. I was torn by the simultaneous and contradictory desire to conform, to be good, and also to claim my autonomy as an anti-authoritarian and rebel.

In our family there was a similarly complicated unfurling of history, secrets, decision making and grief – combined with flashes of hope, a fine moment of promise and a belief in a better future. It was strange time and place to be  a child: a multi-layered existence with shifting standards, exceptions, and different rules for different people.

The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong. I was at summer camp deep in North Carolina, amid tobacco fields and a surprisingly deep racial divide, when Nixon resigned. The camp counsellors were crying, saying things like, “I bet my mama’s having a heart attack.” I knew that at the same time there would be a sense of celebration at home. It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.

The idea that a government could repeatedly and knowingly betray the trust of the people, that a president could so misuse his power – claiming that if the president does it, it’s not illegal – unfolded alongside my own family dramas, the unveiling of secrets, deeper histories and a sense that nothing was ever quite what it seemed. The result was a sharpening of my eye and an obsession with locating the truth and finding an articulation for that space between things that defines who we are. My need to parse fact from fiction in my own family led me to be more suspicious, to want to illuminate the space between public and private, to give language to that chasm.

The actions taken by a president or fictional character resonate and carry forward through history – and remind us of the depths of our responsibility to and for one another. I constantly think about why people behave as they do and what their behaviour means to them; how beliefs are formed and what they are used to defend or explain. I remain fascinated by Nixon’s struggle; with the way, even as president, he was so isolated. By how he would stay up late into the night writing for hours on long legal pads, scratching out a logic for himself.

I am perpetually reading the culture – the social, political and economic worlds as well as those of visual art, music and literature. All of it conspires to become the stuff of fiction. Everything I write about is a hope, a dream of who were are and what we one day might be; a dream that is born from all that has come before.

A M Homes’s novel “May We Be Forgiven” is published by Granta Books (£16.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge