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Know Your Place is a revelatory self-portrait of the working class

There’s a pleasing, utterly unself-pitying sense of anger in this collection of essays.

Has there ever been a more interesting time to be working class, to employ the old Chinese curse? Once, you knew exactly why you had shuffled on this mortal coil – to toil for those richer than you and then to drop down dead after producing a new generation of toil-fodder. The party that came along in the first year of the 20th century to represent you was called Labour, because that was all you were ever likely to do.

Gradually, the extraordinary notion grew that those born poor should have just as much right to enjoy life and fulfil their potential as those born rich – and that respect should be earned by, rather than given as a due to, one’s “betters”. By 1945 this feeling had built to such a level of excited expectation that it was strong enough to evict the sainted war leader Winston Churchill in favour of a quiet little man who promised fair shares for all. The Welfare State, the Swinging Sixties, the power of the trade unions in the Seventies, the Thatcherism of the Eighties (“More Estonians than Etonians in that cabinet” some snob sniffed of the self-made Jews she favoured) – all in their very different ways advanced the feeling that class was increasingly unimportant.

And then somehow, it stopped.

Now the Labour Party is led by a man called Jeremy and has ministers who openly mock the working class – see Emily “Lady Nugee” Thornberry and her Lady Muck-like contempt for White Van Man. “Diversity” when used by employers such as the BBC merely means middle-class young women and ethnic minorities get a leg-up while the working class can go rot. And I have long detailed the progress of the SADs – the Sons and Daughters of the rich and famous who have colonised the few jobs in which a bright prole kid could make good money for cushy work, from journalism to modelling.

Brexit was a cry of anger against this rotten state of regression, which is why Labour heartlands such as Wales and the north of England voted so enthusiastically for it. Similarly outsiderish, this book started out on Twitter and was funded on Kickstarter – obviously mainstream publishers are suspicious of the working class unless they have a Guardian journalist standing safely in between in case they turn feral. And what a refreshing revelation it is, after so many years of hearing Owen Jones testily explain the proletariat and their funny little ways in his highly irritating haemorrhoidal supply-teacher manner!

I liked Laura Waddell on the joy of fast food (“Yellowing posters about nutrition flap dog-eared from the walls of local surgery waiting rooms… I don’t want to eat these apples, clinically dissected into units of health, peeled of enjoyment”), Yvonne Singh on the seaside (“We were the only brown faces on the beach but we didn’t experience any racism… the seaside instilled in me a hope, a hope that things could be better”), Kit de Waal on being a reader from the “wrong” side of the tracks (“Even Jane Eyre, a ‘poor’ orphan, spoke French, played the piano, ultimately and conveniently becoming a rich heiress”) and Kath McKay on vulgarity (“When did it become a pejorative term?… it silences people, and causes a huge waste of talent”).

There are a couple of duds: essays about benefits cuts and “sexuality” – why not just call it sex? But it’s Dominic Grace’s piece “The Death of a Pub” that takes this book into another class (while staying resolutely working, of course). Playful, poignant, perfectly judged, it’s the antithesis of a Ken Loach film, and on the subject of reflecting working-class culture I really cannot think of higher praise.

There’s a pleasing, utterly unself-pitying sense of anger here, directed not just at the people who Guardianistas would have their model, biddable proletariat be angry – the Tories and the bankers – but also at the Great and the Good turned grating and goody-goody. Stuck-up liberal southern comedians, middle-class university students, organisers of literary festivals, the BBC and the Guardian itself (yay!) who appear to find the working class so unspeakably vulgar that they seem to wish it could, like Cybermen, be melted down and remodelled as transsexual Islamists or something equally exotic.

This may be because the working class reminds liberals from other classes how their position is built on the opportunity-robbing of contemporaries just as able as themselves, which may contribute to the recent favouring of identity politics over class politics: it’s easy to champion minorities, because there aren’t very many of them, but in order for the working class to be given their due, millions of middle-class liberals would have to lose what they take for granted.

Carol Ann Duffy’s recent Brexit play My Country: A Work In Progress was composed largely of the real words of real people interviewed in the wake of the referendum result. But you would never have guessed it, as clichéd and hackneyed as it was; as the respected liberal elite theatre critic Susannah Clapp wrote:

Verbatim drama can excite the imagination as much as any fiery fiction. But to do so it must bring us voices we haven’t heard before – or make us hear familiar voices in a new way. There are too many antique stereotypes here: the whisky-swigging Scot, the singing Welshman… it is old hat.

Know Your Place will not drown out the well-bred clamour of those who see the working class as straw men to be fashioned into handy vent dolls, but it’s a smashing start. 

Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class
Edited by Nathan Connolly
Dead Ink Books, 180pp, £15.99​

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

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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