VS Naipaul remains a champion for immigrants and their children

In his novels, Naipaul showed we could be just as erudite and accomplished as the very best of our British hosts

A dozen years ago VS Naipaul strolled into the atrium of Bush House. He was to appear on the World Service programme that I produced. A small retinue fussed around him; he seemed amused and serene. We found him a seat and I knelt beside him and whispered that he was the writer I most admired; he had defined the world for me. Naipaul nodded more out of expectation than appreciation. After a while he stood and as we proceeded into the building Sir Vidia held out his elegant fedora and gave it to me to hold – as if I were his valet.

Thirty years earlier, Viv, a book-loving uncle, had introduced me to the exacting delight of Naipaul’s writing; we championed him for demonstrating, through his ...

Kitch by Anthony Joseph review – Windrush’s calypso chronicler

Anthony Joseph skilfully fills in the patchy life story of the singer known as Lord Kitchener, who wrote London is the Place for Me on the voyage from Trinidad

In footage recorded by Pathé News on 22 June 1948, “Lord Kitchener” – as the charming Trinidadian musician Aldwyn Roberts was known – demonstrated his worthiness of the title “the King of Calypso” as he stood in zoot suit and trilby on the gangway of the MV Empire Windrush and regaled his new home with a calypso he’d composed on the ship, “London is the Place for Me”.

Kitch gravitated to the Port of Spain ghetto, La Cour Harpe, which attracted pimps, desperadoes and steel-bandsmen

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Windrush tales: my parents were caught between nostalgia and an inability to return

Growing up in Luton, Colin Grant found his parents’ ‘state of irritable temporariness’ captured in the work of Caribbean authors. Would they ever go home?

At every West Indian christening, wedding or funeral that I attended in 1970s Luton, when the big people gathered for “some old time talk”, you’d inevitably overhear snatches of the same mantra: “Bwoi, this country too cold to bury. Don’t mek me bury here.” Men and women voiced a version of the same desire to turn back towards the West Indies, to “wheel and come again” as Jamaicans say. And when the time came, their burial back home would be done with style: “Yes, man, pure excitement!”

Throughout my childhood my parents Ethlyn and Bageye seemed to live irritably in a state of temporariness, neither able to leave England nor return to Jamaica. I often wondered how they reconciled themselves to that condition. ...

The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah review – the remarkable life of the people’s poet

The Rastafarian writer lists among his greatest achievements that he made it to 30 ‘without being shot’. This memoir is raw, yet warm

At the Hay festival more than a decade ago, I struggled to escape the rain by squeezing into the back of a huge marquee. The tent was packed with damp literature lovers and full of love. The recipient of that love – wearing an orange boiler suit and the biggest smile on the planet, flashing his dreadlocks and letting fly with martial arts kicks – was the Rasta poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

Alongside a few other contemporary figures, such as Grayson Perry, Zephaniah has found the key to unlocking the nation’s affections for an artist. This was far from predetermined. In The Life and Rhymes, a raw yet warm account in 61 brief chapters of the existential need for black self-actualisation, Zephaniah offers himself up as ...

American Histories by John Edgar Wideman review – an immense and moving jazz riff

These haunting, irresistible short stories interrogate the consequences of violence against a backdrop of African American history and family tragedy

“Violence is as American as cherry pie,” the civil rights activist H Rap Brown informed us in the 1960s. The consequences of violence are what John Edgar Wideman has interrogated for decades in his tough but heart-rending books, returning repeatedly to the subject of his own African American family.

This latest collection of 21 short stories – some purely fictional, some autobiographical, in which the past is never put to rest – features tormented historical figures such as John Brown and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Alongside them he explores his family’s pathology, its unnatural deaths and imprisonments standing as proxy for America’s tragedy.

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Colin Grant: five books about the Windrush generation

Sam Selvon’s daring use of dialect, VS Naipaul’s ‘shipwrecked men’, and the imagined voices of passengers aboard boats bound for England

Caribbean writing took a giant leap forward in 1948. The passengers disembarking from the Empire Windrush that year, recorded by British Pathé newsreel, signalled their metropolitan ambitions in stylish zoot suits with double-breasted jackets and fedora hats, rarely worn in Jamaica or Trinidad. Some of those pioneering émigrés found their way to the BBC World Service. There were few outlets for creative writing in the colonial West Indies; and the far-sighted BBC radio programme Caribbean Voices provided a platform, financial reward and critical appraisal for poems and short stories set in the region, boosting the fledgling careers of writers including George Lamming, VS Naipaul and Sam Selvon.

In between “swabbing out the shithouse” of various private clubs, Selvon penned The Lonely Londoners, a gold standard of wry, empathetic ...

Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan – the neurologist as sleuth

The author of It’s All in Your Head investigates mysterious symptoms as a detective would, but still marvels at the mysteries of the brain

Victor Horsley, one of the first surgeons to carry out a successful brain operation, was renowned for his arrogance towards peers and extraordinary sensitivity to patients. A junior doctor recalled that when conducting ward rounds, “he gave each patient the impression that he was his sole care in life and would arrange their pillows with a tender deftness”. In 1886, his operation on James B, an anonymous patient with intractable epilepsy, cured him of further seizures; it rendered James B a significant footnote in medical history and made Horsley a star.

That first brain surgery illuminates the symbiotic relationship of patient and physician, now explored often in this golden age of doctor-authors. In transcribing case histories as the source material for books, medics must wrestle with ...

Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch review – everyday racism and a search for identity

A powerful hybrid of memoir, reportage and commentary considers so-called racial blindness, the draw of Africa and life as a black woman in Britain

‘England is an island but not I land,” say the Rastas. They may have been born in Birmingham or Bristol but they don’t believe they belong in the UK. The same feeling courses through every fibre of Afua Hirsch’s being. The daughter of a black Ghanaian woman and white English man, Hirsch recalls how, in going to work in Senegal as a young adult, she “had left Britain to leave being British”.

An investigation into a nation’s identity and the barrister turned journalist’s lack of a sense of belonging, Brit(ish) is a hybrid of memoir, reportage and social commentary. But it is also a quest to articulate and complete a personal identity by looking to Africa for answers, and this has taken place down the ages.


Pale Rider by Laura Spinney review – the flu pandemic that killed 50 million

Spanish flu in 1918-19 killed vastly more people than the world war it followed, yet has remained in the shadowsA high-security containment facility in Atlanta, Georgia, keeps under lock and key an organism that in the course of a few months from 1918-1919 was responsible for more deaths than the number of people killed in the first world war. Vanished until 2005, the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus was brought back to life for the purpose of better understanding its catastrophic effect on the world’s population a century ago. But as Laura Spinney points out in Pale Rider, the resurrection is not thought universally to be a good idea. The Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people, has remained something of an enigma, not only because scientists are still unsure about why it was so lethal, but because it’s a hugely significant world event ...

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge review – ‘racism is a white problem’

White people avoid discussing race, and when discussions are had, they fail to meet the reality of black experience Ignatius Sancho, whose parents died on the slave ship on which he was born, had the good fortune later in life to receive a classical education courtesy of the Duke of Montagu. As an adult, Sancho was feted as an African man of letters who, entering into a correspondence with Laurence Sterne in 1766, beseeched the author to use his authority to intervene in the plight of enslaved Africans. So for hundreds of years black writers in Britain have sought to engage white people on the subject of race. But not any more – at least as far as Reni Eddo-Lodge is concerned. Yet the title of her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – it was first used in a widely read blog she posted ...

Familiar Stranger by Stuart Hall review – from Jamaica to the New Left and Thatcherism

This posthumous memoir by the renowned cultural theorist hinges on his journey from the West Indies to the ‘mother country’ Stuart Hall, who died in 2014, was a radical Caribbean intellectual based in Britain for most of his adult life, an activist and cultural theorist who became a hugely influential figure for his own and subsequent generations. His fierce championing of social engagement – as exemplified in his editorship of the New Left Review – was underpinned by compassion, delivered in a voice as smooth as the finest rum. He was a pioneering thinker about race in Britain, who nonetheless put class first, arguing along with Richard Hoggart and others for the rightful place of the working class and popular art forms in mainstream culture. He helped to define the term “Thatcherism”, and in such prescient books as The Hard Road to Renewal – about Margaret Thatcher and the crisis ...

Island People: The Caribbean and the World review – Naipaul and dancehall

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s elegant travel book delves deep into the region’s brutal history and unique allure In 1958 the BBC World Service shut down Caribbean Voices, a programme that had provided a nurturing platform for fledgling West Indian authors, a handful of whom went on to become luminaries of the region. Explaining the reasons for its closure, a BBC official announced that inevitably “the children had outgrown the patronage of the parent”. Four years later Jamaica and Trinidad gained independence from the UK, with a rush of jubilation and anxiety. It is particularly this theme – the fallout from change – that travel writer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro explores cogently in Island People. It takes courage to venture into a territory already inhabited by Anthony Trollope, Patrick Leigh Fermor and VS Naipaul. A writer is bound to ask himself whether he has anything to say – to match their wit and arrogance. ...

Black and British by David Olusoga review – reclaiming a lost past

Olusoga’s insightful ‘forgotten history’ amounts to much more than a text to accompany a TV series. Yet despite its many attributes, is it too temperate? How do you make black British history palatable to white Britons? Actually, hold on a second. How do you make it palatable to black Britons? Let’s start again. How do you compose a history of Britain’s involvement with black people? The answer during my childhood was to accentuate the positive; to tweak the past, for instance, so that schoolchildren were left with the impression that slavery was somehow an abhorrent North American practice and that the British, through the good works of William Wilberforce, should be commended for their part in bringing about the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Related: David Olusoga: ‘There’s a dark side to British history, and we saw a flash of it this summer’ Continue reading...

Negroland by Margo Jefferson review – life in the black upper class

A captivating memoir on the distinction between white and black privilege and how the black power movement brought on a crisis for the author Have you been to or, for that matter, even heard of “Negroland”? Here’s a clue. It’s not Harlem or Chicago’s South Side or any conurbation of black Americans. As Margo Jefferson illuminates in her captivating memoir, Negroland is not so much a geographic location as a state of mind; an exclusive club without discernible borders, to which few have ever belonged. Over the years, its members have been characterised by descriptions ranging from “the coloured 400” (families) to “the blue vein society”. If you have to ask how you gain entry to Negroland, you’ve already betrayed your lack of credentials. It’s a society composed of a “better class” of Negro, though such people’s judgment is not always sound. In one of Jefferson’s many startling passages she reveals that, at the height ...

Respectable by Lynsey Hanley review – why class difference is an open wound

Hanley was brought up working-class on a council estate but became middle-class. This is an important, intelligent book about how she became part of an ‘emerging elite’

What’s happened to the 21st-century protagonist of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey? Where is the contemporary kestrel-loving Billy Casper of the novel Kes? White, English working-class-born writers, educated out of their class, have largely abandoned their mates, who are now relegated once more to the margins of literature. Mates to their mates, “chavs” and “pikeys” to others, such people make more regular appearances in tabloids, where they are depicted using Morrisons plastic bags instead of nappies, and kidnapping their own children to claim the ransom. If their reputation is to be rescued then it might come down to serious non-fiction writers such as Lynsey Hanley, a journalist who grew up working class on a council estate and whose compassion and empathy for working-class ...

Marlon James’s Booker win celebrated by Jamaican authors

This week’s literary triumph welcomed as an occasion of ‘monumental value’ which may help combat homophobia on the island

When Bob Marley died in 1981, his record company made a call to Peter Tosh, his former musical partner in the Wailers. Tosh responded to the news saying: “Well, if it so, then it so, perhaps it leave a little room for the rest of us to come through.”

But Marlon James has proved that even in death Marley’s significance is still huge. And that rather than limiting others, he can serve to release a fresh burst of creativity. Justine Henzell who co-runs the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica, and where Marlon James began to hone his craft, says James is part of a renaissance of Jamaican writing. “Everyone, the whole island, is elated and understands the significance. This puts Jamaica literature on the map.”

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