At times when writing People Like Us, Hashi Mohamed had to abandon typing because he couldn’t see the screen through his tears. “I wanted to stop many times,” says the 36-year-old planning law barrister, in the concluding chapter of what is at once a history of his Somali family, a childhood memoir, and a forensic analysis of inequality in the UK today.
At the age of nine, Mohamed arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum with his three siblings, unable to speak English. It would be five years until his mother followed him to London.
Born and brought up in a poor suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, where his parents had moved from Somalia in the early Eighties, he had just lost his father to a car accident. His paternal grandfather, the first of chapter one’s eponymous “three Hashis”, had also died in a road accident, back in Somalia.
Home, then, was deprived parts of the borough of Brent in north-west London, although there was never a “home” as such – the children were passed between a handful of relatives, sleeping six to a room, never staying longer than a year in one place. When their mother arrived in 1998, they moved to a hostel off Kilburn High Road infested with bedbugs and cockroaches.
With English as his third language after Somali and Swahili, Mohamed was grappling with an unfamiliar country (he once knocked himself unconscious, so unaccustomed was he to the existence of lamp posts). It was also a place where “they kill black boys”, with Stephen Lawrence stabbed to death in 1993 – the year Mohamed arrived.
Growing up, he would be stopped and searched by police, and threatened with expulsion after disrupting lessons. Some of his half-brothers ended up in prison. At school in Wembley, the headteacher was once beaten up by an angry parent in the playground; the pupils watched and laughed.
At 18, Mohamed was homeless, living in the Centrepoint hostel for young people in central London. “Our aspirations were limited to the two professions in which we saw young black men making money: football and drug dealing,” he writes.
So how did he come to live in a house he owns in Wembley, speak in an accent middle-class observers in the book tell him derives from the “Home Counties” and “Eton”, and work in one of Britain’s most exclusive professions?
“Social mobility” is one answer – a slippery term that means different things to different people. Some would interpret Mohamed’s story as a shining example of a meritocratic Britain where, as Boris Johnson put it in a 2013 speech as London mayor, the best “cornflakes” have a chance to “get to the top” of the packet.
It is a beguiling success story. A return visit to Nairobi at 18, where he saw the new prosperity of relatives he’d left behind, made Mohamed realise he would never be moving back there (many migrants have a dream of returning; his was holding him in limbo). He focused on work, and gained a place at the University of Hertfordshire to study law and French. Years later, when asked at a barristers’ dinner at Lincoln’s Inn which “fine school” taught him to moot (practice speaking in court) so well, he replied that he’d picked up his debating skills “from having to talk myself out of being stabbed”.
The full story, however, is told through his own experiences and comprehensive data: namely, that he is an anomaly. A difficult childhood, underfunded schooling and services, racial prejudice, class snobbery and other social disadvantages block most people who have had working-class upbringings from top establishment jobs.
He draws out various nuances, including the “social and cultural capital” that means bosses hire and promote candidates in their own image; those who have that conveniently indefinable “polish” that a public school and wealthy parents can give.
Yet well-meaning liberals might be challenged by his pragmatism. Identity politics, in Mohamed’s view, “encourage[s] people to see themselves in terms of a single, disadvantageous aspect of their rich and varied individuality”. He emphasises the importance of father figures, and advocates “code-switching”: altering your behaviour for different scenarios (he advises his younger cousins, for example, not to use London urban slang in professional environments).
Ultimately, Hashi Mohamed’s book tells young people what worked for him, while enlightening them about the extra hurdles ahead. “You’ll need a lot of luck as you go,” he writes. “Let’s hope that, along the way, someone explains the unwritten rules of the world you want to join.”
Hashi Mohamed will be appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 April
People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain
Profile, 320pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics