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Last year’s resolution for a reading diary offers an excellent reminder of everything I read in 2017

Struck down with an inevitable flu over the festive period, our writer recounted the books she enjoyed over the past 12 months. 

Being ill over the festive period has a sort of inevitability about it: there’s always one family member sneezing in a dressing gown, and this year it was my turn. I managed to swerve Christmas itself, only succumbing between Boxing Day and New Year, but the quiet deadness of that fallow period felt even stranger than usual as I lay upstairs in bed, feverish and exhausted, as flat and wrung-out as the tail end of the year itself.

For a day or two I watched a slightly hallucinatory selection of films – All About Eve, and When Harry Met Sally, followed by the terrorist-attack blockbuster London Has Fallen, which despite being preposterous, was full of those kind of scenes I sneakily love, where Westminster Abbey is blown up and Chelsea Bridge collapses into the river.

Ben and I spent New Year’s Eve watching Goodfellas, and as 2018 exploded into life, I spluttered my way through midnight, sipping at a medicinal Calvados, which only made my headache worse. When I crept back to bed, I lay awake, listening to the last scattered rockets bursting overhead, relaxing a little each time a car slowed to a halt, depositing one of the kids safely home.

Next day I started a fresh page for the new year of my reading diary. This was last year’s resolution, so that I have a record of all the books I read, along with notes and quotes. Some get a full page, others just a word of approval or otherwise. It’s a great reminder of everything I read in 2017.

Books such as Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts and Anita Brookner’s Look At Me, from which I noted down this line: “I feel quite deeply, I think. If I am not very careful, I shall grow into the most awful old battle-axe.” Keggie Carew’s Dadland and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, with its brilliant quote about white people singing in “their brave and sexless little voices”. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, and Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat, a memoir that is precise in its observations about the 1980s New York world of art, drugs and fashion.

I loved Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, and David France’s How to Survive a Plague, although its entry gushes at me like a billboard outside a theatre – “amazing! gripping! heartbreaking!”. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land opened my eyes to the realities of modern life in the modern countryside, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair had me scribbling down quotable lines like this one: “‘I mean he’s far from contemptible,’ Hughie said, ‘obviously’ – though contempt, now he’d mentioned it, seemed to steal into the room, like the draught from the window.”

Then there was Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile and two from Susie Boyt – Love & Fame (“Auden would have written well about the internet”) and My Judy Garland Life (“the insomniac portions of the night when the tips of one’s dilemmas always seem enormously sharp”).

As for audiobooks, my favourite was George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, read by a cast of characters, like the play it almost was.

And I ended the year reading Chris Heath’s Reveal, an enthralling study of Robbie Williams, covering the years from 2006 to the present. Heath has an eye for the anecdote that shines a light on his subject’s predicament, and as I lay in my sickbed, I thought about what fame really means to those who win it. I’ll leave you with this scene, which captures the life of the pop star in all its improbable glory:

“Rob walks round the grounds of the country hotel, the Schloss Lerbach near Cologne, with some of the band. There’s a general conversation about how nice it is here.

‘Drugs would make it better,’ Rob says, wistfully.

‘You could say that about anything,’ one of the band counters.

‘Yeah,’ Rob says, and thinks this through to its logical conclusion. ‘Drugs,’ he decides, ‘would make DRUGS better.’

That night a woman will be spotted trying to climb a ladder into Rob’s room. Unsuccessfully. He sleeps through the commotion.” 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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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