Foreigners: Three English lives, By Caryl Phillips

Three hundred years of solitude
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"All people who have reached the point of becoming nations tend to despise foreigners," wrote George Orwell, "but there is not much doubt that the English-speaking races are the worst offenders... as soon as they become fully aware of any foreign race they invent an insulting nickname for it." Orwell's thesis came to mind more than once while I was reading Caryl Phillips's Foreigners, a triptych of portraits as hard to pigeonhole as are its protagonists. Shifting perspectives, a variety of styles and genres combining fiction, biography and reportage are the tools used to excavate the layered lives of three foreign Englishmen, united by their colour, outsider/insider status, and that they all met sorry ends in real life.

As Phillips reminds us, Black people have been present in English life since the Roman occupation. Nevertheless, the perception of Black foreigners as an unassimilable and escalating presence has plagued the English for centuries. In 1601, Elizabeth I issued a proclamation ordering the expulsion of "blackamoors". By 1764, The Gentleman's Magazine was bemoaning that "The practice of importing Negroe servants into these kingdoms is said to be already a grievance", and "yet it is every day encouraged... the number in this metropolis only, is supposed to be near 20,000".

One of those was Francis Barber, the first of Phillips's subjects, in "Doctor Johnson's Watch". We are given a poignant glimpse of the life of Samuel Johnson's "faithful negro", though what we know of Barber is fascinating enough to have inspired a whole novel.

Why did the father of the English dictionary choose to leave his papers to a Jamaican-born servant? The narrator is an unnamed friend, who displays the attitudes of a philanthropic 18th-century English gent, recollecting an encounter with Barber as "the normal pleasantries between superior and inferior that one might expect in civilised society". The rest of this vignette, and the others, almost constitutes an exploration of civilisation, measured by the way a society treats its most vulnerable members, in an echo of Johnson's conviction that a decent provision for the poor is the true test. After Johnson's death, our narrator, planning to invest in Granville Sharp's scheme for resettling freed blacks in Africa, sets out to find out how Barber has fared with his inherited prosperity, only to discover that liberty as much as time has taken its toll.

Boxing champion Randolph Turpin provides another example of a downward spiral, from hero to destitute to suicide: a fall from grace that is brilliantly humanised for the straightness with which Phillips tells it in "Made In Wales", using his own understated voice yet unmistakably betraying a passion for the sport. Turpin's story demonstrates that being English-born is no guarantee of fitting in, though there is hope salvaged from the pride that is his legacy to his descendants.

If Barber could be described as "a poor transported African whose roots had refused to properly catch the soil of our fair land", so could David Oluwale, focus of "Northern Lights", Phillips's most stylistically complex contribution. A Nigerian migrant who arrived in 1949, with hopes of being an engineer, Oluwale suffered imprisonment, mental-health problems and vagrancy in Leeds: a familiar down-and-out, persecuted to death by two racist policemen. Their conviction in 1969 was a landmark verdict. Phillips' affectionate elegy to a figure who looms large in his consciousness is not always easy to follow, layered as it is with a patchwork of voices, but the unforgiving facts resonate powerfully.

Born in St Kitts, bred in Leeds, resident of New York and frequent visitor to West Africa, Caryl Phillips has experience enough to draw on when it comes to the nuances of belonging, racial identity and the dislocation of migration that characterise his oeuvre. The trajectory need not always be downwards, but Foreigners remains a disconsolate book, for all its crafted observation and diligent research. There have been many high-profile examples of black men whose lives have been ended by the uncivilised forces of racism – whether Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill in 1959 or Stephen Lawrence in Eltham in 1993 – and it is not easy to bear witness to such tragedy, no more so now than 250 years ago.

Margaret Busby edited 'Daughters of Africa' (Ballantine)

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