Boyd Tonkin: Islands of love in a sea of suspicion
The Week In Books
Friday 30 October 2009
Sometimes the flesh-creeping power of punditry in Britain far outstrips any stunt that you may meet on Halloween. The media fright-masks came out in force this week. Furious columnists gave the bruised Nick Griffin a get-well-soon present in the shape of claims that crafty ministers and their shadowy advisers had conspired to foist a multi-cultural society on Britain. The government responded with appeasing blather about keeping people out. As it happens, I spent my Saturday at the Imperial War Museum. Its special exhibition, "From War to Windrush", shows how thousands of Caribbean men and women crossed oceans and moved mountains to persuade ministers that they should be allowed to fight, and die, for this country in both world wars. Which, of course, they did.
With panicked politicians and the bully press so forgetful of our shared history, it falls to literature to tell the truth. The coming weeks will offer readers, and TV viewers, some precious chances to appreciate the origins of so much British "diversity". So often, it all came down to love. I realise that idea may shock the sensibilities of our best-paid commentators. We can, if they prefer, discuss "inter-racial sex".
The stylish and moving BBC adaptation (by Paula Milne and Sarah Williams) of Andrea Levy's prize-harvesting novel Small Island will bring a fresh audience to its saga of hearts and destinies entwined in spite of every barrier that empire and its aftermath could raise. Next month, Zadie Smith will publish her volume of collected essays Changing my Mind, which includes a group of wonderfully tender and loving pieces about her Bromley-born father. This week the poet and novelist Bernardine Evaristo releases an expanded edition of her 1997 novel-in-verse Lara (Bloodaxe, 8.95). It semi-autobigraphically traces a family history across two centuries and three continents, via a journey that embraces Brazil, Nigeria, Germany, Ireland and ultimately England. We should pity the bigots. How many mingled souls will they have to disentangle, how many bodily fluids will they have to unmix, before their fantasies of uniformity and separation can ever come to pass?
In the face of the tidal surges of affection and curiosity that such stories tell, the notion that ministers can legislate to mould minds sounds doolally. (Doolally? From the maddening boredom of troops in transit at the Deolali camp, north of Bombay.) In the case of Levy, Smith and Evaristo, one aspect of their work needs to be trumpeted from the rooftops now. Once more, we are being sold the big fib that cultural pluralism is a zero-sum game in which, abetted by sinister elitists, the "minorities" win and and the "majority" loses. Every one of these authors and I could name a dozen others salutes and celebrates every facet of a many-shaded heritage. "This is London-stylee," snaps Evaristo's young soul rebel of an artist, Lara. "My influences are Hackney, Afro-beat and Blue Peter".
Of course, the stormy passage towards a creole Britain did not make headway without plenty of strain, pain and heartache. In Lara, Evaristo registers the jolt of the encounters that recur down her generations not only the mix of Nigerian "rice and peas" with "Yorkshire pud/ meat and two veg" in the heroine's parents' marriage, but the bruising arrival of the Irish in Liverpool, Germans in London, Yoruba in Brazil and back again. The narrative couplets crackle with the tension on the tongue bred by all these conjunctions. New life and new language enters this trans-oceanic world thanks to people who flout the advice an old German sailor gives to his young compatriot Louis as, in 1860, he docks in the "angry, savage, hungry city" of London. "Stick to your own". He did not, and neither did millions like him. At a time when raucous public voices want to shout us back into boxes, it takes writers to remind us of the pleasures and the virtues of impurity.
P.S.In the twilight world of the agent, a quiet deal or two may achieve a coup that puts one player strategically ahead of every rival power. News declassified this week reveals that John Le Carr, creator of Smiley and Karla, has defected from Hodder & Stoughton who "ran" him for 38 years to Penguin, which will publish not only a new novel but his whole 21-book backlist in its Modern Classics list. Step forward the fixer in the shadows: literary agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. Earlier this month, Geller shepherded another "asset" Nelson Mandela, no less safely into the arms of Pan Macmillan (and many other publishers worldwide) for his prison diaries, Conversations with Myself. In the competing agencies of Wyliegrad and Victorstan, the lights burn late in fizzy-water-filled rooms. How to resist the rise and rise of Gelleria?
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