In 2009, when she was still living in Oxfordshire with a husband she skittishly referred to in print as “the Shakespeare Professor” (Stanley Wells), Susan Hill wrote a book about the experience, over a year, of reading only books she already owned. She called it Howards End is on the Landing. While bemusingly short on references to Forster’s novel, that book proclaimed the tastes of an old-fashioned reader whose predilections were forcefully stated. Hill’s favourites included Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Francis Kilvert. Ian Fleming was warmly praised. Jane Austen was summarily dismissed. Cameos added a degree of charm to Hill’s enterprise: a lizard-eyed Edith Sitwell’s demand for an impromptu poetry recitation from an unnerved fellow guest (a youthful Hill, paying a visit to her first literary patrons, the Snows) was recalled with gleeful wit.
Susan Hill has always embraced the rigid views of Middle England. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is the product of a mind that has grown so proud of those steely prejudices as to believe such biases merit a trumpet blast. The result is bizarre.
About six years ago, Hill moved to Norfolk, a still remote county she appears to dislike (“Bad roads. Awful accidents. No motorways . . . No serious hills”). Walking briskly beside a sea that is always grey, she finds solace in Tennyson (“Break, break break”). Hill has no time for her neighbours (“Posh names and nomoney. They are Lefties too”). Complaints are also made about the “red-trousered brigade” who burden North Norfolk with their presence in high summer.
Hill tells us that her small publishing company had a hit with the Duchess of Devonshire’s
I bloody love Pnin
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Counting My Chickens (2001). “Andrew” and “Debo” were Hill’s good friends. “I loved Debo”; make no mistake, however: “I am not awed by rank”. She does, nevertheless, like dropping names. Martin Amis (“Mart”) is said to write “like an angel . . . . I will never give up on him”. Susan Sontag, briefly encountered in the company of Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens (“whom I admire but cannot like”), is praised for the courage of her dying and scolded for the absence of humour in her work. Sontag’s great novel The Volcano Lover, a book alive with humour and horror, goes unmentioned. The late Candida Lycett Green (John Betjeman’s daughter) slips into the pages as yet another dear friend. So does the influential online reviewer “Dove-Grey Reader”, to whose revealed self Hill bends a stiff knee in her dedication: “my friend Lynne Hatwell . . . who has read more books than me – and she’s younger”.
Hill’s own reading appears not to have expanded much in recent years. She remains a James Bond fan and has even taken to nightly sessions of online gaming (“a mental challenge, and I was improving all the time”) in order better to appreciate Casino Royale. Fleming’s Moonraker can, she declares, take its place beside any Graham Greene novel, and that’s just “for a start”. Oscar Wilde gains Hill’s approval: “one could go a long way to find a wittier playwright”. So does Hardy, whose melancholy vein is duly noted: “He had no optimism, no hope for man or universe”. Woolf and Dickens retain their secure perch atop the heap. Moby-Dick is read on holiday, but fails to elicit comment.
Criticism is not, perhaps, Hill’s forte. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of several entrancingly lively lectures on fiction, is praised most highly for his most prosaic: a textbook interpretation of Bleak House. Hill also commends him as a fellow disdainer of her bête noire, Jane Austen. But the inconvenient fact that Nabokov, who kept an open mind on the topic, ended by finding wonders in Mansfield Park goes unmentioned.
Hill’s entry about Nabokov suggests what is most problematic about Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. In Howards End is on the Landing, Hill made approving reference to David Cecil’s belief that a literary critic should always eluci-
date either a book’s beauties or its faults. Hill can do this; a beguiling case is made in just this way for Raymond Chandler’s distinctive style. For the most part, however, she relies on fierce assertion to carry the day. Thus, we learn that Sarah Churchwell has tweeted to her followers that “I bloody love Pnin”. Hill agrees. “I bloody do, too.” That’s the sum total of Hill’s analysis. Of what value is it to learn that Ivy ComptonBurnett’s oeuvre is “an easy one to avoid”, as if it were a puddle or a hay bale? How, without a single insight – or even a quotation – from the books, can we be rescued from forming our own intransigent prejudices?
Hill herself has been writing for many years. She makes the task sound enviably simple. Perhaps, for her, it is. She writes one draft “and one draft only . . . . I would never achieve an MA in writing”. Between books, Hill enjoys and records her birdwatching (“There was a snipe by the river today”). But birds lack the discipline required to write books; disapprovingly, Hill notes that birdflight is “very wasteful of energy and time”.
In 1970, Hill published I’m the King of the Castle, a striking sequel to Rebecca. Somewhere, surely, in two books about a lifetime of enjoying largely English fiction – P. D. James, Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham are included – Daphne Du Maurier should have been mentioned? Can a sequel be written to a novel about which that sequel’s outspoken author has no opinion? The absence of Du Maurier’s name is only one of the many puzzles here. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is the work of someone who knows what she likes and – sadly for her admirers – seems to wish for nothing more.
People of colour raised in the openly racist Britain of the 1960s and 70s often put an identity quest at the heart of their fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. Joan Riley’s novel about an alienated girl, The Unbelonging (1985), and Caryl Phillips’s panEuropean travelogue, The European Tribe (1988), provide powerful early examples. Hanif Kureishi’s first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), opens with the mixed-race protagonist declaring, “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost”. In her play Talking in Tongues (1991), Winsome Pinnock wrote about an Afro-Caribbean woman who sought to reassemble her fragmented identity back in her parents’ Jamaica. In my own verse novel, Lara (1997), the mixed-race protagonist journeys to her father’s Nigeria to see if she can belong there. Back then, writing in this genre spoke of the dilemma of not feeling accepted in Britain; to the children of immigrants, the seemingly harmless question, “Where do you really come from?”, was seen as a challenge to their British birthright. Jackie Kay’s memorable poem “In My Country” encapsulates one response: “Where do you come from? / Here, I said, Here, these parts” (Other Lovers, 1993).
It is a question I haven’t been asked in decades; I hoped it had died out along with the idea that Black and British was an oxymoron. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), however, finds it still tripping out of people’s mouths, as the most “persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging”. The book digs deep into the reasons for this enduring question, skilfully blending memoir, history and social commentary around race, culture and identity. Hirsch
Why race still matters
A f u a H i r s c h
B R I T ( I S H ) On race, identity and belonging
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writes with an incisive honesty that disproves the idea that privilege can be easily reduced to racial binaries. She fully acknowledges the exclusive pedigree of her own background as a lighter-skinned woman of mixed parentage in a colourist society, who enjoyed a comfortable middle-class suburban childhood with her Ghanaian-born mother and English Jewish father. Her education was private all the way to Oxford University, and led to a first career as a barrister. Ten years ago she became a journalist. Hirsch is ostensibly the successful embodiment of Britain’s multicultural project, but her privileged status has not immunized her from the perniciousness of racism.
At primary school her nickname was Troll. When she was fifteen and living in white Wimbledon, a local boutique owner didn’t want her in his shop, declaring, “the black girls are thieves”. She subsequently avoided Wimbledon’s boutiques for twenty years and, when she now ventures into them, “I keep my hands visible at all times”. Anecdotes are a recurring motif in a free-flowing book of ideas, experiences and analysis that reach far beyond the personal. The past and present are in conversation with each other as Hirsch interrogates the roots of racism and dismantles myths. A visit to the Black Man’s Fan Club in Hertfordshire, for example, a monthly swingers’ night for white women who want to have sex with black men, exposes the stereotyping of black males as hyper-sexual with supersized equipment. Hirsch locates the origins of this myth in Elizabethan travel books. Likewise, she pulls the rug from under Britain’s proud multiculturalism when she cites research by the National Office of Statistics that shows that only 4 per cent of white people intermarry with other races.
In Africa, Hirsch hopes to find a place where her “broken identity” can become whole. But in Kenya “the colonial hierarchy is alive and well”. An event at the British High Commissioner’s house is completely white except for the author and the black servants. At an empty restaurant usually frequented by expatriates, the staff refuse to seat her and a black friend. In Senegal she is attacked by a madman in a market and nobody wants to help her. “I realised these people didn’t care if I lived or died. I was just another métisse . . . another foreigner enjoying a lifes-
tyle that for most people was far out of reach”. In Ghana she is robbed, which opens her eyes to how she is perceived by the poor local people: “The look I had seen in the robbers’ eyes that day – a wild hunger, full of hate – I began to see everywhere. It had always been there”. Hirsch realizes, after years of searching, that Britain is home simply because “there is nowhere else to go”.
In Britain we like to point the finger at America for its record on racism. It is only when writers such as Hirsch and Reni EddoLodge are given a platform that we are forced to confront how it plays out on home ground. Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (TLS review, July 7, 2017) was predicated on the unwillingness of white people to admit that racism exists. Hirsch concurs: “In Britain we are taught not to see race. We are told race does not matter. We have convinced ourselves that if we contort ourselves into a form of blindness, then issues of identity will quietly disappear”. But although they are, in a sense, companion pieces, these books are far from interchangeable. Brit(ish) teases out more of the contradictions inherent in a racially stratified society. Hirsch’s dark-skinned black lover, for example, is reluctant to introduce her to his friends and family “predicting – accurately – that they would see me as evidence that he had rejected black women of his own complexion”. And what of mixed-race people who do not choose to align themselves with black people? Hirsch shows us that the issues are complicated, that blackness is no more homogeneous than whiteness, and that we do need to talk about it if anything is to change.
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