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My Mother’s Lost Children: a funny and powerfully touching film about family

In this BBC Storyville documentary, Danny Ben-Moshe tells an extraordinary tale.

In the age of social media, it’s easy to forget that most families used not to talk about things much; even now, many of us are more inclined to favour denial and avoidance over emotional incontinence as a life strategy. This is, perhaps, one reason why My Mother’s Lost Children (20 September, 10pm) – Danny Ben-Moshe’s funny, sprawling and powerfully touching film for the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand – felt like such a breath of fresh air. An alternative title might have been: “Her Lips Were Sealed”.

Outwardly, Ben-Moshe’s Jewish, north London family tended to loquaciousness; teasing and fights were par for the course around the Friday night dinner table. But this disguised a long and painful history of silence: the kind of distilled quiet without which, we eventually learned, Lillian Ben-Moshe might otherwise have gone completely mad.

The story is complicated, and my summary will likely do it no justice. But here goes. In the 1950s, Ben-Moshe’s mother, Lillian, met a student called Raymond who belonged to a wealthy Iranian Jewish family. He was handsome, and she was a naive 15-year-old; she soon found herself pregnant. And so, they were married. This was not a success. They were poor because Raymond couldn’t find work in London, and it wasn’t long before Lillian was living with her Yiddish-speaking refugee mother again, along with her two small children: Andrew, then three, and Michelle, then just two.

One day, Raymond knocked at the door. He wanted to take the children to the park and, having no reason to refuse, she let him. She would not see them again for 40 years. “Did you go to police?” asked Danny, the son of her second husband. She shook her head. “You didn’t go to the police, doll,” she said. “You went to the Jewish Board of Guardians.” These Guardians told her that no crime had been committed. That there was, in other words, nothing she could do.

Her family went along with this, though why I cannot say exactly. A kind of listlessness seemed to strike – or perhaps they were just terrified of her pain. What about Lillian? She blessed God for “all the good things” she had been given: for her new husband, Henry, and her children Danny and Ira. Somehow, the pit sealed over before it could pull her in.

Ben-Moshe’s film told this story (it had more twists than I’ve mentioned) with what I can only describe as sceptical empathy, and an abiding patience that he somehow managed to maintain even when Raymond, tracked down in Iran, announced that Lillian had never been “on my level” and that “the bitch was not your mother, it was your grandmother”. It was exemplary work: another reminder, if it were needed, of the strength of Storyville right now.

Its star, though, was Lillian: her vivid way of speaking, her cartoon-like manner, her warmth and occasional flintiness. There was a kind of ruthlessness in the way she had negotiated her survival, and it tore at your heart. Reunited with Andrew and Michelle, there were no adequate words, only a sense of misery, handed down unwittingly, and deepening like – the phrase has never been bettered – a coastal shelf.

There was also plenty of misery, albeit of a slightly louder kind, in Stalkers (20 November, 10.45pm) a documentary about the work of Paladin, a charity that supports those on the receiving end of this horrible crime. It was queasily fascinating, of course, not least because (social media again) life is so easy for perpetrators nowadays, all the necessary information being at their fingertips. (Perhaps this is one reason why a million people in the UK are now stalked every year.) But it was also frustrating.

I wanted its director Katharine English to tell us more about the psychology of those who stalk, and about what treatments, if any, work (prison, it was clear, only sometimes breaks the cycle). When is it meanness and spite and when is it a question of mental health? Not, of course, that understanding the difference is likely to be of much consolation to a man who must wear a stab jacket to work, or a woman who receives dead mice and baby scans in the post. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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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