Treating the tiger

Ian Jack

  • Tales from Two Cities: Travel of Another Sort by Dervla Murphy
    Murray, 310 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4435 1

Dervla Murphy made her name as a writer who got on her bike and travelled bravely and alone through the less accessible parts of the non-European world. More recently, she stayed closer to her Irish home and investigated the religious and social divisions of Northern Ireland. In this book she turns her attention to the non-European populations of two British cities, Bradford and Birmingham, and there confronts the hazards and complexities of inner-city life with the same fortitude – sometimes amounting to pig-headedness – which carried her through Baltistan, Ethiopia and the further reaches of Nepal. Her physical courage is manifested on many pages, most notably in her prolonged confrontation with some West Midlands Rastafarians. But no less courageous is her remarkably open treatment of a theme, race in modern Britain, which for too long now has been narrowly viewed – by the white population at least – through the wrong end of two faulty telescopes: the one cracked by guilt and ideology, the other by complacency and hate.

In Tales from Two Cities she writes with a kind of combative liberalism which attacks the lazy and sometimes violent ignorance of white Britain, as well as many of the quainter ‘anti-racist’ notions which this malevolent ignorance originally inspired and has since sustained. She does so with an old-fashioned tool, the plain reporting of what she sees and hears, powered by an old-fashioned belief that ‘whether we are vegetarians or will only eat halal meat, whether we insist on arranged marriages or don’t bother marrying, whether we believe in eight thousand gods or one god or no god – none of these differences is significant beside our common humanity.’

Murphy is an Irishwoman in her mid-fifties. She is not one of the new travelling ironists and actually seems to like people – and, perhaps more important, says so openly when she does not. Meeting and befriending strangers is her modus operandi. Clearly many people like her, though I am not at all sure myself that I would care to meet her. She kisses kittens on the nose, calls her lodgings her ‘pad’ and her bicycle ‘Bronte’. She can sit for hours in pubs drinking pints of cider and smoking small cigars. She speaks with a deep voice and in winter, by her own account, dresses in ‘asexual garb’. She might also be Miss Marple played by Margaret Rutherford, an odd mixture of the fey and the hearty, who bustles into other people’s lives using a charm and guile which might be unforgivable if her inquiries were less well-intentioned or their results less illuminating. As it is, quite a few people she meets think of her as an ‘interfering bitch’ who could well be employed by the Home Office or the drugs squad. She writes of her stay in Handsworth, Birmingham:

My material-gathering task proved even trickier than it had been in the tense sectarian ghettoes of Northern Ireland. There most people eventually accepted me as an outsider with no axe to grind. On the race relations scene, my being without an axe aroused many suspicions which were strengthened by my working methods or lack of them. Blacks and Browns are used to their territories being studied by battalions of sociologists, political scientists, urban economists, even theologians ... Writers of books about race relations are not supposed to wander casually around the back streets, equipped only with their antennae and a scruffy little jotter, talking to ‘unimportant’ people.

Her methods are not, in fact, quite as casual as this implies. She does not subscribe to the headless-chicken school of reporting, and her book testifies to hard work in libraries and many contrived encounters on the street. Here Miss Marple-Murphy has several techniques at her command, culled from years of travel. They include the broken-down bicycle trick, in which she appeals for help after she has derailed her chain with her own hands or self-inflicted a puncture. Foreign experience is also helpful in other ways. Meeting a migrant from Swat, she introduces herself as a friend of the late Wali. Trying to win over truculent Rastafarians, she produces photographs of herself in Ethiopia with Haile Selassie’s royal descendants: ‘You can hardly name-drop more effectively than by recalling your friendship with God’s granddaughter.’

Of course, she lays herself open to the charge of condescension: a charge usually framed along the lines that the time is past when a white woman can attempt to describe the ‘black’ experience of Britain by living among British non-whites as though they were inhabitants of the equatorial rain-forest rather than our neighbours in the next house or (more likely) in the streets over the hill. Several reviewers have already made this point. A notice in one of the more serious Sundays even argued that the book would have been better unpublished because it reflected ‘black’ lives through a ‘white’ prism, that it contained voices which we ‘do not need to hear’. Well, I think there are voices here which we do need to hear, not least Murphy’s own.

Leave aside the questionable proposition that a writer’s sensibilities can be divided into ‘white’ and ‘black’: the fact is that Britain’s migrant communities are still generally perceived, even among well-meaning people who should know better, as a monolithic block (or possibly two blocks, Asian and Afro-Caribbean) which surfaces in the national consciousness from time to time as a political and social problem on a par with unemployment or the state of the National Health Service. True, films and television have begun to reflect a human diversity, as have a trickle of novels and autobiography (Hanif Kureishi, Farook Dhondy’s patronage at Channel 4, Praful Mohanti’s Through Brown Eyes). But in newspapers and non-fiction books ‘black’ Britons continue to emerge as one-dimensional categories which have to be worried about, feared or assisted – rioters, newsagents, voters, victims – rather than the rich collection of individuals, faiths and cultures which could and should re-shape our idea of Britishness.

Newspapers have an especially cramped view – even, or perhaps especially, those newspapers of leftish or liberal leanings. There are very few non-whites, for example, on the reporting staffs of the Observer, the Guardian and the Independent. This isn’t to say that reporting any more than reflective writing can be split into ‘black’ and ‘white’: nor is it to suggest that non-white journalists should be tokenly recruited, only to be ghettoised into coverage of their own communities. But institutions whose staffing arrangements ignore a vital ingredient in modern British life are hardly well-placed, as the Police discovered rather late, to adjust to the new realities. There are few more depressing symptoms of this than the sight of a newsroom which is struggling to cover a riot. Reporters are asked to find the ‘community leaders’ and to talk to ‘the youth’; race advisors in the Police and the local authority are consulted; tame sociologists are chased for their twopenny worth.

By no means all of these people are charlatans, but to fall among certain sections of them is to meet axe-grinders with a vengeance. Some are simply careerists with a line to sell, others have been seduced by their self-created role as spokespersons and protectors of the oppressed – just as much so, it seems at times, as any Victorian Englishman who found himself as a district collector in Boggley Wollah. The politics which shape their attitudes are fierce and crude. (Of one such official I was once told in Bradford: ‘He will bring the Belgrano and the North-South divide into an argument about Leeds United.’) But they have defined the struggle and set its terminology. All whites are racist, only whites are racist. Racism explains every social, educational and economic disadvantage. All people who are not ‘white’ are ‘black’ (even the Chinese), and the victims of racism. Murphy writes: ‘Several anti-racists warned me that if I did not use the word “black” as a political statement I would be signalling a lack of support for their cause. Since I do not see myself as an anti-racist warrior, this left me unmoved.’

She goes her own way, to evoke Bradford during the Honeyford affair, and Handsworth before, during and after its riot. She is not particularly profound on Ray Honeyford: a good teacher and a decent man, but too insular and self-righteous to head a school where 90 per cent of the children are of Pakistani parents, in a city where race is such an inflammable issue. But her eye-witness account of the mayhem in Handsworth, and the muddle and blame-shifting which succeeded it, has an honesty and exactness which lift it well beyond the usual ruck of pieced-together journalism and official inquiry. Always, she seeks ‘a wide and uninhibited variety of views’ from independent contacts who are ‘dissociated from all branches of the Race Relations Industry’. Nonetheless, anti-racism and anti-racists form an important theme in her book, and she gives them as tough and fair an examination as any I have read, not least by frankly analysing her own confusions and distastes.

She is clear about the movement’s origins: anti-racism was a direct response to the ‘flexing of National Front and Powellite muscles’ during the late Sixties and early Seventies. It is unsafe to consign that time to folk-memory. The racial prejudice of British whites is still deep-seated and widespread, and shows little sign of abating under the ‘imperial revivalism’ of the present government and its xenophobic cheerleaders in the tabloid press. Murphy draws her evidence from Bradford pubs and bus-stops, where spasms of hatred distort friendly white faces whenever the subject of the city’s Pakistani population is raised: ‘They’re horrible those people! Horrible! You take my advice and keep well away – they have diseases.’ Sometimes, she says, the level of feverish antagonism can be ‘literally nauseating’. But then:

Stereotyping – the vice most deplored by anti-racists – is not peculiar to whites. In Bradford, Mirpuris [from Azad Kashmir in Pakistan] deplored the loose living of Gujerati Muslims who allowed their wives to drive delivery vans. Blacks deplored Pakistani heroin dealing and Sikh arrogance. Hindus deplored Muslim faction-fighting and Black laziness. Sikhs deplored the sharp practices of Gujerati merchants, the drug-peddling of Blacks, the Mirpuri ill-treatment of women – and the dangerous politics of Sikhs attached to rival gurdwaras [temples]. And so on and on, in apparently infinite permutations and combinations of misunderstanding, jealousy, contempt, fear, ignorance, resentment. I sometimes wondered: so what’s special about White prejudice?

The answer comes in the classic text of the anti-racist movement: ‘prejudice plus power equals racism.’ In other words, white prejudice is uniquely damaging because whites have the power to act upon it – to discriminate. But then again: ‘In many homogeneous societies the powerful act to the detriment of their powerless compatriots; and the worst of British racialist aberrations looks benign compared with, for example, the Indian and Bangladeshi governments’ treatment of aboriginal tribes ... the longer I spent on the race-relations scene the more important it seemed to me that we should not lose sight of the universal nature of the problem.’ She concedes that such global sentiments may be of little practical use to a black youth in a dole queue, though perhaps more useful than a doctrine which ‘discourages Blacks and Browns from making essential adjustments [to British society] by laying all the blame for anybody’s lack of success on “the White system of racial hierarchy” ’. Doesn’t this simply match one kind of hate and prejudice with another? Over an acrimonious supper in one of Bradford’s curry houses she puts the point to three professional anti-racists, who scorn her. ‘We don’t want racial harmony at your price,’ says Mahomet. ‘We’re naming the price nowadays ... you’re trying to coerce blacks into lying down under racism forever.’ A friend at the table apologises for her: ‘She’s always been wet, and I think she’s getting worse.’

The anger which is always present in these encounters upsets her. She understands its origins and realises that, as a white professional woman who has been discriminated against only at the most trivial of levels, she may be badly placed to argue the odds. And she is aware that nothing inflames anti-racist emotion more than the word ‘tolerance’, and the white pretence that racial prejudice is confined to lumpen youths with small swastikas engraved on their only slightly larger foreheads: ‘The English can be supremely tolerant of those against whom they are prejudiced and this confusing ingredient in the inter-racial pudding explains why so many whites are able to evade the reality of their own prejudice.’ Still, anti-racism remains for her ‘irrational, provocative, destabilising’, and its activists ‘handicapped by seething anger and impatient intolerance ... and by a total incomprehension of the English temperament’. She draws an analogy:

Their anti-racist strategies and tactics often suggest that they are, paradoxically, unaware of the strength and potential viciousness of British racialism. They behave like a zoo vet in charge of an injured tiger who says: ‘OK, I’ll go into his cage and give him physiotherapy – it’ll hurt him a lot but he’ll feel better after. It’s what he needs to cure him.’ The tiger wouldn’t agree and what would happen to the vet?

So how does Murphy suggest we treat the tiger instead? She is perhaps at her wettest (surely no bad word these days) when she talks about the need for ‘humanity awareness’. Young people who have travelled rough beyond the confines of Europe, she notices, treat Britain’s ethnic minorities as ‘just people’, with the normal share of virtues and faults. But to spread the values of young travellers to white Britain as a whole would require ‘the dispersion of the entire population ... throughout the non-European world for at least a year, without enough money to live like tourists’.

We can’t hope for that, So then? In the end, Murphy offers no real prescription – or none that could be translated into political action – other than knowledge. ‘If you know nothing about people you can believe anything about them; and the way is then clear for Powellism.’ Quarrying into this mountain of public ignorance will not be easy; many whites, Murphy discovers, have become antipathetic to information or rational thought. ‘Stuff your tolerance,’ says a white Yorkshireman in Keighley, ‘keep that for your middle-class friends. Their kind aren’t losing schoolbooks and jobs and space to live.’ A lorry driver in Bradford says something which strikes Murphy as very English: ‘When you’re working class, with no choices, you’re not interested in thinking – you only feel.’

Many of her most combative judgments tackle the tattered and brutalised remnants of what is still called, hopefully, ‘the host community’. Sadly, she says, ‘inner-city white youngsters are no longer aware of belonging to a community.’ At a Bradford comprehensive she tries to tell pupils about her foreign travels and finds the effort to communicate with them reminiscent of ‘occasions when I had to overcome the suspicions of wary hill people.’ Even some of the teachers baffled her: they were ‘so uneducated and so sullenly uninterested in their jobs’ – until she discovered how much they were paid. In the streets outside, loud-mouthed and short-tempered adolescent mothers wean children on Coke and drag them through an urban landscape which is not so much aesthetically displeasing as a form of depravity: ‘to survey Birmingham from the top of a bus introduces incredulity.’ In Leeds, where she is mugged, she finds small children still playing on waste land at one in the morning: ‘it only surprises me that Leeds United does not have many more psychopathic fans.’

This is the reality – and which of us can deny it? – to which immigrants and their children are supposed to adjust. Murphy has many pungent things to say about Islam, in particular about the way it subjugates the Mirpuri women she befriends in Bradford: ‘the fact that all over the world there are millions of loved and respected Muslim wives ... owes more to mankind’s good instincts than the wisdom of the Prophet.’ But she comes to see that what many non-Muslims regard as fanaticism is often, in England, no more than outraged decency. When she meets young men who have abandoned the religious and social codes of their Mirpuri parents – always excepting a residual male chauvinism – she finds ‘severely fractured personalities’ for whom assimilation means beer and obscenities, within them ‘an empty space that cannot possibly be filled by what is available to them of European culture’. She begins to appreciate Islam’s ‘taming’ – perhaps she means civilising – influence. ‘The prospect of thousands of jobless young Muslims, untamed by Islam, adrift in the inner-cities alarms me much more than that other great problem – at present attracting so much attention – of thousands of young Blacks on the loose.’

Later, looking for a bedsit in Handsworth, she discovers behind terrace exteriors that have been prettified with public money, ‘not Third World destitution but a Fourth World of squalor I have never before encountered. The half-adoption of a Western urban lifestyle, by very poor Blacks and Browns living in grossly over-crowded conditions, can lead to an out-of-control degradation unknown in the worst of Third World slums.’ Thoughts of the future make her ‘heartsick’: a country that cannot look after its own white ‘sub-proletariat’ offers little hope to Browns and Blacks. And yet, by its end, this is not a pessimistic book. White Britain may, as Murphy says, suffer an insular failure of the imagination, but here she has captured voices and personalities which will change that, if anything can. They defy categorisation. Their talent, energy and hope breach the conventions of anti-racism, but as Murphy says at one point, the shrill machinations of that campaign have ‘muzzled many people, of all colours, who care so deeply about race relations that the loss of their honest public comments is a tragedy’.