London Crossings: a Biography of Black Britain
Mike Phillips
London: Continuum, 2001.
£16.99, 224 pages, ISBN 0826452922.

Bernard Cros
Université d’Avignon

London Crossings : A Biography of Black Britain
is a kaleidoscope. Mike Phillips, the journalist-cum-broadcaster-cum-crime story writer takes us through the first 60 years of his life through a collage of pithy personal vignettes about his work, his children, his family, of tender remembrances of childhood, and of a series of essays on literature, London politics, and blacks in Britain and the world.

The subtitle needs some explanation; the book is not exactly a ‘biography of Britain’, rather an autobiography of Mike Phillips, a man trying to piece up his identity fragmented across three continents, at the end of which an image of multiracial Britain comes out of the haze. More decisively, although he may be torn and undecided about what he is ultimately, in particular about what he owes exactly to his Caribbean roots, Phillips constantly asserts ‘(his) claim to Britishness’, his choice to be a black Briton.

The heterogeneous narrative, reflecting Phillips’s multi-faceted cultural input, is marked by an acute sense of space and the related concepts of borders and territory, separation and confrontation. It is first the simple story of an exile experiencing the pain of parting with the motherland, his friends, and a familiar setting. Born in Guyana, Phillips came to England as a teenager when his parents set out to start a new life. Every time he gets somewhere new, Phillips starts by drawing comparisons with Guyana. The first time he woke up in London, the rush of traffic sounded exactly like ‘the background music to every day of [his] childhood… the beat of the surf pounding the shore’; he then realised that he was in England on Jan. 4th 1956, and that ‘nothing… was like anything [he] had ever known’. The story of his visit to Kenya is pitted with comparison with the home soil (a clear indication that a black man’s origins are ultimately in Africa) and Cuba is ‘a Caribbean country’ with an ‘African heritage’.

The very experience of migration made it difficult for the young black exile to feel secure in his new environment: ‘This sense of our presence being temporary and provisional was, as far as I can remember, shared by all the migrants we knew.’ Yet such displacement was inevitable: some of his relatives had gone to the USA, others to various islands of the West Indies, his father had worked in Central America and Trinidad ‘before trying England’, since ‘for anyone with almost any ambition, sending a period of time in another country was inevitable.’ He would be no exception to exile, but unlike the others, he would make London his. Phillips learned the hard way. He found out for instance that he spoke a much more distinguished variety of English than the working-class children around him. Guyana was ‘a country where the use of English was an important and highly valued instrument’; now in order to be accepted by the group, he was forcing himself to rehearse ‘the glottal stop and the nasal shortening of words’. He was also shocked by the lack of respect from local youngsters for hierarchy and adults, but also by the fact that adults themselves were no longer what he had known. On his first day at school, he stood up as the teacher walked into the room, but ‘everyone laughed and jeered, while the teacher gave me a puzzled stare… In a few seconds, I had learned that the way to avoid trouble was to keep my mouth shut…’

Exile is first and foremost an urban experience, the city a place full of dangers and opportunities, where chance takes its toll and the self is altered (‘the city reshaped me’, whereas in his crime novels ‘the urban landscape shapes [the] individual choices [of his characters] and outcomes’). In a way, his first months in London were first a long process of demythologising. His reading of Dickens and other authors had helped him make ‘a mental map of London’, but now ‘the place where I had come to live seemed to have nothing to do with the city I had imagined’. In every way, he found himself ‘in an upside-down world’, so that no sooner had he arrived that ‘[he] began inventing London’ in order to put a hold on this fluid city, made of ‘dots which refuse to coalesce’ — maybe a mirror of Phillips’s own identity and a key to understanding his love for the British capital: “My relationship with the city had changed every year I had spent in it, and by the end of the decade it was as if I had never belonged anywhere else’. Having found his own harbour, he was taken by surprise when his parents announced that they were emigrating to the USA, where ‘black life… seemed dangerous and embattled.’

Phillips describes the changes in London’s relation to black migrants over the last 45 years against a backdrop of industrial decline, ragged neighbourhoods and growing multiracialism. London became a place where migrants had to fight ‘for living spaces’ with the local English working-class, the place where he encountered racism (‘the colour of my skin…was like a flashing beacon’). Racism had not yet been expressed in the words of Enoch Powell, but he experienced it daily, at school, where he sat in a corner with the other ‘recent arrivals’, on the street, in the neighbourhood. In a few powerfully iconoclastic paragraphs, he goes on to explain that ‘London’s streets are full of the ghosts of unsung blacks’ — there have been black Londoners ever since the Romans lived in Londinium — thus pointing at the obvious cosmopolitan vocation of the city. He never says that his description of the evolution of the Caribbean community after WWII (a theme he had previously helped his younger brother Trevor analyze in “Windrush”, a 1998 TV programme) stands as a definitive report on the state of blacks in Britain but it is nonetheless compelling. By 1956, Caribbeans defined themselves in relation to their original birthplace. Within a few years after the first ‘racial riots’ in Notting Hill, the emergence of pan-Africanism (‘born in the Caribbean’), the civil rights movement in America, the Powellite backlash, and the sheer increase in number and the relative poverty of the newcomers which had ‘created enclaves in areas like Notting Hill and Brixton’ had forced them into a debate over ‘race relations’ where the concept of ‘blackness’ started to dominate. By the 1970s, ‘blackness had… become part of our public life.’

The ‘tools of survival’ for the Caribbean community were essentially music (the Rastafarian lyrics made reggae a fundamental political instrument, in which ‘Babylon’ was yet to be defeated in Britain), local organizations and churches. To Phillips, they were just the British expression of the frustration of the local blacks. The seemingly emblematic Notting Hill festival ‘was a Caribbean thing… founded and run by black people… but it wasn’t a Caribbean festival, because it was born in London, and at its heart was the experience of being a migrant in Britain.’ The festival also reorganized ‘the public spaces in the city’ as unlike the tidy military parades British people were used to, ‘the Carnival broke all the rules… Disorder is its rule.’ These blacks were British now.

On a more personal note, in spite of the fears that he would never go back, Phillips understood that his life would be what he would make of it (‘my future was a clean state’, ‘I was being born again in a new self’) and that racial discrimination would only part of the problem. Wandering from one odd job (as worker in a toy factory) to another (e.g. in hospital for geriatrics, then in a number of garages, finally in the Post Office), he realised that ‘it was largely my own ineptitude that had confined me to the lowest-paid, unskilled and dirty end of the job market.’ London forced migrants ‘to become individuals, developing autonomous relationships outside the family circle in a way which, beforehand, would have been unthinkable.’ He indirectly criticizes ‘the defensive and exclusive network’ of family and friends which migrants tend to rely on abroad. A key paradox about this seemingly still ‘biography of Britain’ is that it keeps moving all the time. In the great tradition of travel writing, half the chapters are set outside the British Isles. Guyana, New York, Kenya, Delaware, Cuba, Prague, Gdansk, are all places where the experiences of blacks serve as foils to Phillips’s definition of ‘British blackness’.

As a black writer, Phillips offers a very interesting discussion of the notion of black British writing (‘So what Is It?’). He explains that black writers in Britain are jailed in a series of pre-existing labels and conventions which are very difficult to shake off. ‘Postcolonial writing’ is one of them, but so are civil rights and race. Phillips doesn’t say that decolonisation, racism and rights are not worthy topics (‘they are part of our daily experience’), but rather that they are what the mainly white audiences have come to expect of black writers. Labelling a writer ‘black’ is comfortable (‘their identity is defined and limited by the colour of their skin’), but is also a trap because it tends to overlook the fact that most Caribbean societies are multiracial, and that there are genuine British black writers whose experience is ‘more or less invisible.’ ‘…For a long time, it was easier for a black writer living in the Commonwealth to be published in Britain than for a black person born and brought up in London or Birmingham.’ Instead of being recognized for the sheer value of their work, they were ‘ghettoized… into the smallest cultural space available.’ The very notion of ‘blackness’, a ‘complex, tangled notion if you happen to be British’, is forcefully brought into question. This is how we learn why he chose genre writing, crime stories, which allowed him to meld his political, racial and aesthetic concerns into one whole, and simply ‘to write… in my own voice rather than in the voice of a white Englishman or a foreign ‘postcolonial’ ’. In his fictional London, he tries to describe ‘the effects of migration… and the language or motivation of black characters whose experience in growing up and living in Britain determines their identity’.

The experience of Phillips’s own identity appears in the mix of tones — journalistic, academic, artistic. The final chapter reminds us of the talent of Mike Phillips as a writer. It is a short story about an old white woman being spat at by a young black girl on the bus, the very way he and his family could have been spat at in the 50s, but it is impossible to make out fiction from reality. It just brings the whole book into perspective. His reflections on family life or fatherhood may sound out of place but they are almost constantly drawn into a comment on race relations and race politics in Britain or elsewhere. My only regret is that he says little of his work as a Labour activist, except when he gives an ironic description of his ‘curious, dislocating experience’ at the GLC in the early 1980s as a member of the committee in charge of ‘ethnic arts’, where the obsession of his fellow commissioners was ‘to get the money out of the building’. As it was largely dominated by white males, the committee, ‘although sincerely committed to fighting discrimination’ kept addressing Caribbeans, Africans or Asians as ‘ethnic communities’, using the very categories of ‘white racism’ which did nothing to build solid foundations for them as became obvious when M. Thatcher abolished the GLC. Although the reader may be put off by the dislocated nature of the work, he will recognize the struggle of a black man trying to cope with his identity as he lives in a largely white environment.