Small is beautiful

Stoke Newington hosts an enjoyable alternative to the traditional literary festival.

As the sprawling Hay Festival rumbled to its close in far-away Wales, the second Stoke Newington Literary Festival offered London book lovers something a little less star-studded, and a lot closer to home. Though with a line-up including Steven Berkoff, Stewart Lee, Dan Cruickshank, Jon Ronson, Kate Summerscale, Orange Prize-winner Linda Grant, and with the critic Alex Clark acting as peripatetic literary host, it was hardly a mothers' meeting. (Not that such gender-specific rendezvous take place in Stoke Newington these days.)

Organiser and local resident Liz Vater has a background in PR, and her skills in this field proved invaluable when, last year, on little time and less money, she put together 2010's impressive debut.

N16 is exactly the kind of arty middle-class locale that can sustain a festival of this kind. It mirrors Hay (and many others) in its mix of literature, history, children's events, social issues via recent writing and comedy.

It also employs a wide variety of venues: from the rather impressive Town Hall, replete with the world's second-largest glitter ball (the world's largest is currently stationed in Germany), to The Jolly Butchers pub and the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill.

This mixture, and the festival's focus on local history - Poe, Wollstonecraft and Defoe, the area's three most famous literary residents, all featured across the weekend, most notably when Stephen Berkoff unveiled a bust of Poe at the site of the author's old school - create a homespun community feel, which is by no means a bad thing. Rather it's relaxing and friendly, with no awe-fuelled distance between reader and audience, and there is a strong sense of place.

Being a smaller, less commercial affair (after covering costs, the festival donates profits to literacy projects in Hackney) there is also more time and space for new writers. Thus on Saturday, Alex Clark was to be found in the tiled subterranean room of the Three Crowns pub, The Drop, talking to debut novelists - Sarah Winman (When God Was a Rabbit), Naomi Wood (The Godless Boys) and Sam Leith (The Coincidence Engine); and on Sunday evening the same venue provided the setting for a rather more raucous affair hosted by novelist, Nikesh Shukla.

Declaring he wanted to make the event a bit more "Glastonbury main stage", the ever-boisterous Shukla insisted all the young authors be summoned to the stage by the crowd chanting their names. The packed room kindly obliged for authors Evie Wyld (her debut, After the Fire a Still Small Voice won the Betty Trask award), Gavin James Bower, Shukla himself, Lee Rourke and Niven Govinden, author of two novels, but increasingly a prolific short story writer - he read his story, "Nightwalk", which was broadcast over the weekend on Radio 3, and is currently on the shortlist for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the tale, "Marseille Tip".

The sense of good entertainment via good writing was further emphasised by poet Tim Wells's concept of featuring short sets of poetry at the start of events; both to warm up the crowd and remind attendees that verse can by funny, gripping, seriously entertaining and, most crucially, accessible. Poets thrust into this brief spotlight included: Ashna Sarkar, Heather Phillipson, Jack Underwood, and Simon Barraclough.

Wells also took part in the last event of the festival: "Ska & Reggae in Stoke Newington". And so it was that under the unerring glare of the world's second-largest glitter ball, the panel - which featured the legendary owner of The Four Aces Club in Dalston, Newton Dunbar, and guitarist from The Slits, Viv Albertine - discussed why music from one small island had such a huge impact on London culture in the seventies and beyond. Albertine recalling that John Lydon and his thuggish north London mates would go along to another local reggae club, Phebes, and dance the night away.

From Gothic horror stories to true Victorian crime, reggae to Dr Seuss, the best new poetry to the new hopefuls of English fiction, this festival is more low-key but in many ways more enjoyable version of its blockbusting cousins. Long may it continue.

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist