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A self-confessed psychopath, murder and coming-of-age: the black humour of The End of The F***ing World

“I feel comfortable with him. Sort of safe,” Alyssa thinks, as we cut to James sharpening a knife with obscene glee.

“Alyssa was new,” scrawny 17-year-old James explains through a voice-over, as we watch him lock eyes with a defiant looking girl at his school. “She’d started that term.” So far, so familiar. He pauses. “I thought she could be interesting to kill.”

James is a self-diagnosed psychopath. He lives alone with his father, whom he wants to punch in the face, finds school beneath him, and has murdered a range of different animals from butterflies to his neighbour’s cat. “It probably had a name,” he says, without a hint of remorse. Alyssa, terminally bored and vaguely captured by James’s outsider status, becomes his next potential victim. Inconveniently, she’s a little too unpredictable to pin down, and James ends up punching his dad, stealing his car and taking Alyssa on a bizarre road trip, all on her request.

It’s a jet-black premise, handled with a light touch. Based on a series of comics of the same name, The End of The F***ing World uses absurd comedy to navigate the potential violence at its core (“I feel comfortable with him. Sort of safe,” Alyssa thinks, as we cut to James sharpening a knife with obscene glee) – and somehow it works. The comedy comes from the chemistry between the two leads, and the script allows you to root for the burgeoning romance between James and Alyssa without letting James and his wild fantasies of violence off the hook, so it never becomes We Need To Talk About Kevin – And How Freaking Cute He Is!!!  

The violence of men, often sexual, lurks as a potential threat in every corner – from Alyssa’s pervy and potentially abusive stepdad, to an ex-military man who gives them a lift, to a stranger they stumble across with a box full of pictures of brutalised women, to knife-wielding James himself. “It feels like sex can go from something you want to do, to a punishment, really fucking quickly,” Alyssa thinks to herself after an encounter with a stranger leaves her suddenly cold.

The End of The F***ing World is a show without many comparison points. It shares some similarities with Richard Ayoade’s 2010 film Submarine: from Alyssa’s frank outburst of sexual desire to James’s compulsive, anxious internal monologue to the surrounding comically pathetic adults to the occasional bursts of physical comedy. One terrifically awkward boy trying to sneak through his own life undercover meets one over-compensating, over-confident girl desperate to do something to break the silence and boredom all around her; a strange and blunt kind of romance ensues. Both works exist in a strange suburban setting that seems somehow isolated from the technologically connected present. Over at the Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert describes The End of the F***ing World as “a Wes Anderson screenplay that’s been rejected for being too dark”.

“If this was a movie,” Alyssa muses mid-getaway, “We’d probably be American.” The script here raises an eyebrow at its own mixing of genres – this is a TV show about two awkward Brits in the arse end of nowhere playing with Americana tropes: road trips, getaway cars, lone white male killers. The setting is deliberately muddy: there are almost no geographical locations referenced, and the mix of mid-century homes with wood-panelled walls, diners (a menu reads “one of the Top Ten GREATEST AMERICAN Dining Experiences in the South of England”), motels, along with a soundtrack brimming with the country hits of Brenda Lee and Ricky Nelson, is disorienting. The disjunct also communicates how out of depth Alyssa and James are: at one crisis moment in their adventure, Alyssa says to herself, “I don’t know if this is the right thing to be doing. I’m just thinking about what people on the TV do when they’ve done this.”

Like “sitcom noir” Search Party, The End of the F***king World mixes genres to put morally ambiguous leads in out-of-control situations and watch them panic, act, and squirm about how they handled it all later. “A lot of the time you don't register the important moments in your life as they happen,” Alyssa says, once she’s past the point of no return. “You only see that they were important when you look back.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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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