The Confessions of Gordon Brown

The Brown with whom I had slight journalistic dealings 20 years ago was kind. Turning him into a giant felled by demons (not all of them his own) adds grandeur to a short and undistinguished reign.

The Gordon Brown currently bouncing off the walls at Trafalgar Studios is not so much the confection of the writer Kevin Toolis and the actor Ian Grieve as their great big, sweating pudding. Usually actors fail to match the stature of the originals when they play wellknown people but Grieve is a larger-than-life Brown, whose introversion is one aspect that this powerful yet in the end unsatisfactory show fails to capture. This is the former PM as a foul-mouthed bull, caged and ranting in his Kirkcaldy home, madly plotting his return to power – so madly that sometimes he believes he is still in office, waiting for his lackadaisical staff to arrive at 6am.

The supersized approach to Brown has its pay-offs. Turning him into a giant felled by demons (not all of them his own) adds grandeur to a short and undistinguished reign. He compares himself with a deposed Egyptian emperor and the global economic collapse to a biblical plague. The play’s grand theory is that he was burdened by a sense of destiny bestowed by being born the son of a Presbyterian minister who “spoke the word of God and devoted his life to the community” – but that his origins also doomed him. The granite Scot was incapable of wooing “Southland”, as Brown apparently renamed Middle England.

Yet by playing him at one bad-tempered pitch, Grieve makes intimacy, let alone sympathy, hard to achieve. Brown’s failings are hammered home: his paranoia, jealousy, indecision, untidiness, his inability to manage his diary and his micromanaging: “Do I have to do everything myself?” To these is added, on dubious authority, xenophobia, marked in a near-racist and near-libellous speech invoking “small brown men”, “Krauts” and “feckless Greeks”. If the play has one great insight, it is Brown’s dependency on focus groups, the mirror on the wall that never tells him he is the fairest of them all.

Toolis does not explore where this insecurity came from. The accident in a school rugby match that leaves him with a detached retina is awarded a metaphorical significance – the Samson-like blinding of a strong man that leads to moral myopia. It was surely more likely a cause of his pathological caution. As for family drama, Brown almost breaks down at the thought of John Smith’s death and just stops himself calling him a “real father”. Yet his real father outlived Smith and was often invoked by Brown. To the death of his first child and the disability of another, no reference is made, though it is hard to believe such personal sorrows did not seep into public life.

Brown’s Scottish exile is explicitly compared with Napoleon’s on St Helena. Taking comfort where he can, he points out that he is considerably taller than the Corsican, as well as Tony Blair. His hair cheers him: baldies such as IDS and William Hague had as much chance of the premiership as a bald man has of reading the news on TV. Here, the BBC’s Nick Robinson, seated in the audience ready for a post-show panel discussion, laughed dutifully. Vanity is added to Brown’s sins: hair gel in his desk and a dressing mirror in the corner of the room. He is not only a tragic hero brought down by hubris, but Narcissus.

The Brown with whom I had slight journalistic dealings 20 years ago was kind. Friends tell me of his courage. Power must have curdled the milk of his human kindness. Robinson told the audience that by Brown’s final year in power, relations were so unpleasant, he found them personally upsetting. I have a horrible feeling that, like so much else, Brown brought this play on himself.

Until 28 September. trafalgar-studios.co.uk Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Former prime minister Gordon Brown. Image: Getty

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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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