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The “vagabond” pianist who plays the city as skilfully as the keyboard

His music has that turbulent, impressionistic, peculiarly French feel of perpetual motion.

I meet Francois-Xavier Pierron at Hampstead Heath station early one weekday morning. He says he’s sleeping in the woods nearby. On a good day, he goes right through till 11am. “Then I crick my neck, do a bit of exercise and put my sleeping bag in the tree.” Pierron is wearing a thick grey turtleneck, a beanie and a long, cracked-leather coat – suitable attire for sleeping rough in September. His jeans are slightly yellowed and he’s red-eyed but declines my offer of coffee, taking me to a small ornamental garden alongside the station instead. His fingernails are long for a piano player.

Pierron, 22 and raised near Calais, has been in London for three years. He honed his musical skills on the free pianos of St Pancras station. Local newspapers have reported that he’s playing Ravel – his music has that turbulent, impressionistic, peculiarly French feel of perpetual motion – but they’re his own improvised tunes. He’s as confident as a concert pianist and as loud and untrained as a child. He bounces around like Scott Joplin. One piece is called “Black Horses will not be Mounted”.

For a while, he lived in a hostel in Notting Hill but says he was kicked out. He says he has a loitering ban from St Pancras station now – public spaces aren’t really public, at the end of the day. “They know me,” he adds. “They know I’m not a bad guy.”

I ask Pierron – who also goes by the name of Efe Ikeuseu – why he got in touch. He says he’d noticed I’d interviewed Benjamin Clementine, the idiosyncratic songwriter and pianist who won the Mercury Prize in 2015. Clementine had left Edmonton as a teenager and lived rough on the streets of Paris for a time – he downplays it now, but such stories have always fascinated the music press. In 2008, there was Seasick Steve, the hobo whose hobodom was found to be rock’n’roll fake news.

How do you measure “how homeless” someone is? Why should I be surprised that Pierron has an iPhone – which he charges in a church centre – and a tablet in his rucksack? “I am halfway between homeless and vagabond,” is how he puts it. He was born in Dakar and spent his first eight months in an orphanage. His white, middle-class French parents, who are teachers and artists, adopted him and took him to live on a farm near Calais.

At five, someone told Pierron his parents were white. He talks about the “mirroring” stage in childhood, where you see yourself as an extension of your parents – followed by the moment he realised he was different and saw himself as if “behind glass”.

He saved money and went travelling to Spain, where he met Senegalese rough sleepers. Then, there was a bus via France to Victoria. Little steps toward rootlessness, like a stolen wallet. In London, he worked as a kitchen porter and had no fixed abode. An old girlfriend told him he was probably acting out his feelings of abandonment and that he’d get over it in time.

He smokes weed, he says, but he’s not a drunk. He has no girlfriend now but enjoys the company of his “stinky friends”. He says he likes sleeping in the woods because it’s quiet. And he plays the city as skilfully as he plays the piano: his days are full, promoting his strange, strongheaded music.

Through the homeless charity New Horizon, Pierron was introduced to the On Track programme, run by Camden’s Roundhouse, whereby young people out of work can access free music training. He’s popped up at arts festivals, and he’s got a SoundCloud page. The mayor of Camden invited him to perform at Lauderdale House in Highgate, at a benefit for homelessness and mental health, with Alastair Campbell.

And what does today hold? He’s going to the Southbank to have a shower, he says. In the basement of the Royal Festival Hall there’s a staff washroom he can access unnoticed. Then, because he’s not allowed at St Pancras, he’ll play the piano in the Barbican Music Library, with headphones on. He’s booked it for 2pm.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

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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