Following Caryl Phillips’s speech on toleration, Sam Thomas reflects on the things literature can say about exclusion and avoiding the trap of British fundamentalism.
It is the end of the 1960s at a Leeds high school, and Caryl Phillips has a peculiar status among his classmates: he is the sole black student on the rolls. As a new school term begins, his two brothers arrive, tripling at a stroke the school’s racial diversity, and at the same time ending his sense of uniqueness. “I remember feeling that my freedom was about to be reduced,” he recalls.
This was a Britain still adapting to the arrival of immigrants from the former colonies of the West Indies. Phillips’s parents had left the island of St. Kitts in 1958, bringing their young son to what they had every reason to hope would be a country promising new opportunities. The reality that he and his brothers were facing a decade later was somewhat more complicated. Nonetheless, they had to a great extent assumed their rightful place in a country accustoming itself to the idea that being British no longer meant being white.
Delivering the Morrell Address on Toleration, an annual lecture organised by York’s Politics department held this year on November 1, Phillips begins exactly as you might expect a world-renowned writer of fiction to begin: with a story.
“All three of us knew how to cope. We knew when to fight, and when to run,” he tells his audience. “I spent most of my childhood fighting and running.” These skirmishes aside, the impression he gives of his experience is that of an insider; different, certainly, but by no means peripheral. As he continues, it becomes clear that not all of his contemporaries were as fortunate.
One morning, there is a new name, “like an afterthought, tagged on the end of the register.” Ali is Pakistani, a “moon-faced” boy, shy, friendless, and outcast in a way that Phillips has difficulty imagining even in retrospect. In afternoon exercises, he is inevitably last round the track, “seen through the late afternoon gloom, his spindly legs always appearing on the point of collapsing.” His effort goes unheeded, however, by his schoolmates lined up on the finishing line, who racistly chant – with that unrivalled schoolchild capacity for cruelty: “Pack it in, Ali!”
The story culminates with the young Phillips finding himself one afternoon on the upper deck of the bus home, his schoolmates taunting Ali as usual. This time though they go that step further, seizing the unfortunate boy’s bag and tossing its contents from the windows, “their stupid faces flushed with success.”
In an act of outsider solidarity, Phillips takes Ali to the school secretary, and explains to her what has happened. Her reply is as blunt as it is dismissive. “Poor Ali”, Phillips reflects bleakly, “could neither run nor fight.”
It is abundantly clear that his telling of this story carries with it no small measure of guilt; partially at his failure at the time to do more to help, but also at the recognition of a yawning cultural divide between the two boys’ experiences.
“There was a clear cultural difference,” Phillips explains. As someone well-adapted to British society, he was able to compete on equal terms with his peers. Ali, who lacked “the good manners not to flaunt a foreign language,” could have no such hopes.
Caryl Phillips comes to York with a reputation that has taken him far beyond his nearby hometown. He now lives in the United States, and is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, several collections of non-fiction, and a number of widely-performed plays. He has been described by the New York Times as “one of the literary giants of our time.”
His work, which also includes frequent articles in The Guardian and other publications, is characterised by a thoughtful, perceptive treatment of his experiences of migration and questions of identity. He was therefore a natural choice to deliver a lecture on toleration. It might seem odd, however, that a well-travelled, urbane writer who has already covered such themes extensively in his work would return, as a first point of reference, to an event that happened over three decades ago in the town where he grew up.
Phillips explains that the story came to mind in the aftermath of the London bombings of July 7 2005, and particularly after hearing the news that the terrorists were born and raised in Leeds. “My heart sank,” he said, when he discovered that it was not infiltrators from abroad but British citizens from his home town, who had turned their anger inwards and directed it at the very culture in which they grew up.
The Leeds four, he says with gravity, “were as British as I am, and functioned reasonably well in British society.” Yet Phillips’s reaction is not one of complete incomprehension. He sees their actions as being rooted in a deep and worrying disaffection amongst minority groups – particularly Muslims – in both Britain and Europe at large.
During his youth, “the real divisive factor in British and European life was race.” In a comic falsetto, Phillips imitates a well-meaning teacher at school telling him once that the difference between him and his classmates was that he had “just been left in the oven a bit longer, that’s all love.”
But Phillips feels that the alienation felt by minority groups in Britain is very different now than from before. He attributes this change to the “cultural othering” of non-white British people. The racism that appalls us in his story about Ali persists, he argues, in contemporary British society; it is simply expressed in different terms, ones that have been adapted to a climate of skin-deep racial toleration.
So it is, he says, that yesterday’s “Paki-bashing discourse” has become today’s “anti-Muslim rhetoric, delivered with a wink and a nudge.” Such rhetoric, explains Phillips, though not necessarily to blame for the actions of terrorists, is nonetheless an expression of something still deeply implicit in the way Britain treats its minority populations.
If one of Phillips’s reasons for returning to the 1970s is that he believes we have not entirely buried its prejudices, perhaps a stronger motivation is his belief in the importance and power of stories. “Back then,” he explains, “Britain was narrating a harsh narrative to me.” In his essay ‘Extravagant Strangers’ Phillips remarks, “A large part of my British education has involved learning to recognise when fellow citizens are viewing me as little more than the ‘other’.” The theme discussed in the essay – the position of the writer as an outsider – is a recurrent motif in Phillips’ work.
In his latest book, Foreigners, he uses such insights to describe the lives of three black men who, at different points in recent history, attempt (and ultimately fail) to find a place in British society. The book bridges fiction and non-fiction in a way that encourages the reader to see a familiar world from an unfamiliar perspective. Indeed, from both the lecture and his writing, it is clear that a significant part of Phillips’ intention is to question and reshape the “harsh narrative” that he experienced growing up. Central to this project is his faith in “the moral capacity of fiction to wrench us out of our ideological burrows.”
It is clear that he believes that decades of political wrangling have failed to properly resolve the problem of how a single country such as Britain – let alone continental Europe – can fully accommodate people of different races and religions who often hold radically different cultural assumptions and values. If real toleration is to be a possibility then a different approach is required, and Phillips thinks it must involve writers, particularly writers of narrative fiction, and their ability to help bridge gaps of understanding between cultures.
However, when we seek justification for why we ought to behave in a certain way, or why a government ought to enact a certain policy, we turn as a matter of habit toward philosophical arguments, or cite facts about the world that support our case. We are less inclined to look for answers in literature – reading is seen as a leisure activity, and a passive one at that.
But if we see reading a book as entering into a kind of friendship, the act of reading gains significance. Just as keeping the company of people who enrich our understanding of the world is important to us, so too it is with the books we choose to read.
In his lecture, Phillips seeks to assert the importance of fictional writing along similar lines. “The process of daring to imagine yourself into the life of someone who is not you,” he says, “is an act of moral courage.” However, this is accompanied by an anxiety that these capacities are in danger elsewhere in society.
He criticises the adversarial nature of much of our politics and reality TV culture today, drawing an appreciable murmur of approval from the audience. “We don’t have empathy, we have judgment.”
The point that he made throughout his lecture is that our established ways of debating and practising the politics of culture are desperately inadequate for the scale of the task at hand, and that if we are to solve the problems we face, a different kind of engagement is required.
The adaptation from a postcolonial to a multicultural world, which Phillips dubs “the colouring of Europe”, is, he says, “not something that might happen: it has already happened.” In his essay ‘The Pioneers’, he lampoons the old-fashioned definition of England as a nation of stamp-collectors and pigeon-fanciers: “Most Britons,” he wrote, “are no longer interested in the aimless navel-gazing of a George Orwell.” However true this might be, though, there remains a great deal of work to be done in order to understand what causes the cracks and fissures that characterise modern racial and cultural politics.
Phillips’ writing is an attempt to express human life as part of a community. He writes to extend our understanding of what it means to be an outsider; to be surrounded by a culture to which you can never fully belong.
If there is a case for literature’s indispensability, and its ability to transcend the shortcomings of our adversarial and often narrow-mindedly intellectual culture, there can surely be few people better placed to make it than Caryl Phillips.