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So Here It Is: Dave Hill on Slade’s pretension-free rock memoir

This is a story of how some adversities get conquered, and how others still require conquering.

The exclamation mark in biography is a peculiar thing. It leaps from the page like a spark from a bomb, but it is jollier, perkier, desperate to diffuse any tension, any suggestion of pain. Dave Hill uses them frequently, as befits the attitude you’d expect from a member of Slade, one of the 1970s’ smiliest, sparkliest, most successful glam-rock groups. (Hill is the toothy one with the short, scalpel-scooped fringe, mimicked memorably by Bob Mortimer in the 1990s, alongside Vic Reeves as Noddy Holder. Even more than Holder, Hill is the band’s figure of fun.)

This comes eight pages in. “Dad comes upstairs to find mom in their bedroom with a scarf round her neck and a bottle of pills on the floor… He comes in and says, Get up, you silly bugger!” A page later: “Carol was kidnapped.” That’s Dave’s younger sister. “She was four at the time… she was found by another woman walking around in Wolverhampton town centre… Carol got brought home in a Panda car, which she loved!”

At 26, with three number one hits to his name, Dave Hill is still living in his childhood bedroom in a council house in Wolverhampton, albeit with a gold car parked outside. His book begins here, his mother in a psychiatric hospital, his father blind after an accident at work, his epileptic half-sister long dead after collapsing while pregnant in sole charge of her seven-year-old son. (Mercifully, Carol, despite the childhood kidnap, is OK.) Hill never wanted to leave his home town, he tells us, and indeed he still lives there now, married to local girl, Jan, for the past 44 years. His is a rock narrative without bluster and bravado, grounded to a ridiculous degree. That fringe and those outfits took all the flamboyance.

So Here It Is is the opening line of the chorus of Slade’s evergreen Christmas hit, “Merry Christmas Everybody”, but as a book title it suggests an air of casualness too, and a man happily being apart from fame, a mood which runs through the pages that follow. This tallies with the glut of other pretension-free rock memoirs that have arrived in recent years: take the autobiographies by the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, or Viv Albertine from the 1970s all-female punk band, the Slits, both of which exposed the everyday mundanities behind the myth-making. Take Dave on the style decisions behind his first Top of the Pops appearance in July 1971: “I wore a boiler suit and a woman’s pink coat. I’d wear women’s coats because they were long and made me seem a bit taller.”

Hill’s isn’t a writerly book by any means, if that bothers you. It was crowdfunded by the publishing company Unbound, and many stories trail on too long; they’re the kind that friendly, ageing strangers tell you in pubs as they nurse pints to kill time. Some of the early ones are good, though, including one about Slade’s 1968 trip to the Bahamas, before they were famous. Without spoilers: they’re met by a man called King Sniff in a Mustang. They discover air conditioning for the first time (“back then most of us didn’t even have a fridge”). They perform three sets a night with a snake charmer and belly dancers, then share one room with four beds, a fridge and a toilet. “It sounds horrendous,” Hill says, correctly, “but I think that was what made the band.”

Then came the capes, the TV performances, the first royalty cheques (these arrive when Dave and Jan are getting engaged, Dave still living at home). Hill wasn’t really a songwriter, though, which has financial implications for him later (“My attitude to it at the time was, ‘You write ’em, I’ll sell ’em!’”, he writes, gamely). When Slade’s success fades by the mid-1970s, you really feel for him; returning from an America which they have comprehensively failed to crack, they find punk on the rise. Hill shaves his head, buys a leather jacket. It’s no use. They play “chicken-in-a-basket places”. Hill thinks about setting up a wedding car company.

Slade have a second wind of success in the 1980s, and Oasis cover “Cum On Feel the Noize” in the 1990s; Vic and Bob, too, remind the nation of a band they once loved. These moments offer glimmers of relief for Hill, whose later life hasn’t been particularly easy. Still, his book is at its best in its poignant, ordinary details. These stick in the mind: his dying dad being lowered onto a hospital bed, after suffering two strokes, telling the doctor his son is in Slade. Hill talking candidly about his depression (“I’ve lost my joy, I can’t listen to music, I can’t cry, I don’t want to do the garden”). Hill suffering a stroke himself on-stage; not being able to brush his hair, but being able to rest his hand on the hotel piano, and play it.

So Here It Is is a story of how some adversities get conquered, and how others still require conquering, with pop music, jolly and perky, helping that process along. Rather sweetly, near the end of the book, Hill likens it to “the transformation of a rigid, grey world”. Into that environment came Slade: “We brought colour.” 

Jude Rogers is a music critic and broadcaster

So Here It Is: The Autobiography
Dave Hill
Unbound, 288pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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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