I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Stuart Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932 and came to England to study at Oxford in 1951, as a Rhodes Scholar. His curriculum vitae is an awe-inspiring document. The list of publications, honorary degrees, awards, and teaching positions span 24 pages. A sociologist, writer, film critic and political activist, his achievements are an extension of the work of a man he greatly admired, the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James.
I remember back in 1979, during my final year as a student at Oxford, contemplating whether to take the low road toward a career as a writer, or stay on the academic high road and attempt to put some more initials after my name. Stuart Hall, at that time Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, was the only person that I wanted to study with. I applied to his Centre and then, at the last minute, changed my mind and opted for the low road.
During the ’80s, and on into the ’90s, I have followed Stuart Hall’s remarkable career which has seen him move from the University of Birmingham to the Open University, where he is currently Professor of Sociology. Outside of the academic world he has developed into Britain’s most insightful media critic on matters as wide-ranging as film, literature, race migration and class. He is, I believe, unique in his ability to move between the worlds of the academy and the popular media with both elegance and authority. One day he is on television interviewing Spike Lee, or presenting a documentary about Derek Walcott, the next day he is delivering a guest lecture on Gramsci’s political thoughts to a university audience, and the day after that writing a paper on the role of the modern black photographer in British society to be read at a gallery opening.
As I prepared myself for this interview by re-reading Stuart Hall’s work, I was struck by the degree to which he had applied himself to confronting the wider social problems that have descended upon Britain with the emergence of Thatcherism. In all of Stuart Hall’s writings, including some of the more theoretical essays, one can detect a powerful concern for people, and a great generosity of spirit, impressions which are only confirmed by the privilege of being in his company and listening to him speak.
Caryl Phillips As a young man growing up in Jamaica, what were your thoughts and impressions of England?
Stuart Hall I was brought up in a family which for peculiar, historical reasons had a very rosy relationship to the mother country. Most of my life had been spent thinking that the apogee of scholarly work and education was to get a scholarship and go to England to be finished off, and then come back, as it were, civilized. A good proportion of my life as a schoolboy was spent in the study of English literature, romantic poets, British history and so on. When I came to England in 1951 I came by boat. I arrived in Bristol and took an early autumn journey from Bristol to Oxford, and I thought, I know this place, I know everything about this place, it’s absolutely completely familiar.
CP So, it was a homecoming …
SH It was a homecoming.
CP You were a student at Oxford between 1951–1957. It must have been a strange time because it was just before the major wave of Caribbean migration to Britain. It was also the time when the first generation of working-class students achieved access to higher education. And, of course, it was shortly after the War.
SH Yes, it was a strange time. When I came to England, rationing was still on, so in one sense my time begins deep inside wartime Britain. By ’57 when I left it was post-Suez and Hungary and I saw a major political shift in the country. A lot of my older English friends at Oxford were indeed classic scholarship boys, bright, working class boys who had for the first time, because of the Education Act, stayed on in school and then came to Oxford. It was a real transition point for Britain. And as far as the Caribbean is concerned, it was transitional in the sense that the people I knew in my first years at Oxford were the elite of the Caribbean civil service, sent to Oxford as mature people in their thirties and forties in preparation to be the shapers of independence. By the end of my period in Oxford, Oxford was recruiting West Indians directly, not students at all; the first wave of migrants who worked on the buses. I actually played in a jazz band with a saxophonist and a drummer who were Oxford bus drivers and conductors who had migrated from the Caribbean with their families.
CP Between 1958 and 1964 your work seems to have moved out of the sphere of English literature toward a concern with Marxism and film and television criticism. Were the roots of this drift located in your years at Oxford? Or perhaps before this in Jamaica?
SH I would find it hard to say what the roots of this movement were. In those early days at Oxford, what interested a lot of us was not specific literary judgments, but the sense that language was a key to the culture, that language and writing were always situated in a much broader cultural field. To study Shakespeare was to study Elizabethan language and Elizabethan society.
CP So, it was clear to you that you were going to have to break out of what might be defined as a narrow literary straitjacket.
SH It was clear that I didn’t want to teach literature in a narrow sense … I wanted my PhD to be on American literature, because it’s somewhat tangential. I’m always circling from the outside. I’m interested in the complexities of the marginal position on the center, which, I suppose, is my experience of Oxford. I’m aware that Oxford is the center of both British intellectual life and the wider empire, and I thought, I’m a Rhodes Scholar—the whole point of Rhodes was to send these potential troublemakers to the center, to learn …
CP The time you were leaving Oxford—1957—was exactly the same time that there was a potential for great change in the Caribbean. It was the beginning of the short-lived federation among the islands. Why did you choose not to go back?
SH There was no need to hurry back, because by then federation was a dead idea. But there’s a second reason which is more personal. You see, I came from this peculiar colored middle-class in Jamaica which was oriented toward Britain …
CP Yes, I know, they’re all over the Caribbean …
SH I didn’t want to go back to that. To have a job as a lawyer with my family close at hand, watching over me, I couldn’t bear it. I’d always meant to go home, but I’d always had reservations about becoming a member of that class. So I started to do other things, never with the commitment to stay, but with the idea of, well, I’ll stay for another two years and get a teaching job. I think it’s not until the mid-‘60s that I said to myself, perhaps you’re staying. In fact, I got married in 1964. It’s a long time to not know.
CP In British society in the early ’60s, there were a number of racist immigration acts being passed, and much unrest in the black community. How easy was it for you, from your position inside the academy—a Rhodes Scholar, a recipient of a Jamaican government scholarship, a PhD from Oxford—to get involved in the politics of the left and what was happening on the streets?
SH It was very difficult. I wasn’t involved with politics until I left Oxford. I came to London editing the New Left Review, and was teaching adult education in order to make up my salary. I was a part-time political activist, and it’s in that context that I got involved. I was never involved as a leader, partly because, this may sound odd to you, it’s extremely difficult, as the scholarship son of a middle-class Jamaican, not to be put in that position. If one turned up at a meeting, people would immediately want to nominate you as president … I could help them to articulate what they were trying to say. But I couldn’t speak for them authentically out of the terrible conditions that they were experiencing.
CP In 1958, my parents migrated to Britain. My father went to work as a laborer on British Rail, but I’m not sure that he would have known what to do with a guy like you who had a PhD from Oxford, but who was perhaps feeling the same kind of pressure, feeling the same kind of emotions about Britain and the same degree of, I suppose, anger. What would your relationship have been, at that time, to people such as my father?
SH Well, of course, at first a sense of disjunction. I have a different formation, class position, and I speak out of a different experience; on the other hand, in some ways race was a great leveler, you know. (laughter) There’s not much respect for black PhDs from Oxford, which was one of the things I learned. People looked at me as an immigrant, they couldn’t tell me apart from another boy just knocking around. Notting Hill—the New Left Club had a club in Notting Hill that we were involved in. You know, walking with families back to Palace Terrace, protecting them against the Mosleyites. In a sense race made it possible for a connection to be made.
CP No policeman in Britain has ever asked a black man before hitting him over the head, “Have you been to Oxford?”
SH Exactly, exactly.
CP In 1964, when you went to the University of Birmingham, initially as a research fellow, you were instrumental in helping to found the first Cultural Studies department at any British University. How would you define Cultural Studies?
SH God (laughter) … It’s a bugger of a question. In a way culture spills out into all the humanities. One of the things cultural studies does is take the culture itself, not as a kind of background to something else, but as an object of study in its own right. Something can be said about the nature of cultures, which is more than the sum of the text they produce.
CP How much of an uphill struggle was it to set up a Cultural Studies department?
SH It was done by stealth, by negotiation, by prevarication, ambivalence, double-dealing. It came in on the back of this book, Views of Literacy, which was a book about cultural change and what was happening in the English working class and the British class system. It posed some key questions about the Americanization of British culture and where English culture was going after the War. And what we did was, as part of the English department, take some graduate students to continue the work that we had started in this book, rather than doing traditional literary studies. Immediately there was a huge upsurge of sociologists writing letters: This is not proper sociology, where is the scientific method?
CP It seemed to me that there was a lot of cross-fertilization of disciplines going on at your Centre. However, it has occurred to me that if you had been born in the next generation in Jamaica, you may well have gone to the United States, rather than being a Rhodes Scholar and coming to England.
SH Yes, I certainly would have.
CP You’ve taught in the United States as a visiting professor, most recently in California. What do you think would have happened to your career as a left-wing cultural thinker in the United States?
SH In a funny way I’ve never thought of it, although what you say is true. The next generation and generations since then have been oriented much more towards the U.S. and Canada, so it would have been a perfectly feasible obligation. It’s almost impossible to predict, because it would have been completely different for two reasons. One has to do with the dimensions which colonialism, empire, and plantation slavery give to my take on cultural questions, which is different in important ways from the formation of African American intellectuals. The second thing is the relative smallness of the academic scene in Great Britain, which has been a great advantage to me, because I’ve never thought of myself principally as an academic. I thought of myself trying to address the public as an intellectual who happens to have a job, who teaches. I love teaching, and I like to work in a university, but I’m not an academic. In the U.S. academia is so enormous that everything is caught in its grasp. No such thing exists in Britain, you can’t imagine that university politics could substitute for politics outside. So I’ve just been obliged to address myself to race, to migration, to Thatcherism, to the public media in ways which I don’t think I would have felt compelled to if I had been in a place which was much more sustained and contained within an academic framework.
CP After 45 years in Britain, as opposed to America, and with two children living in Britain, what do you think about the future for kids of West Indian parents who are growing up in Britain?
SH Well, it’s pretty bleak to tell you the honest truth, and I don’t think it’s bleak because they’ve not got the energy, the gumption to get out and do something. I saw the second generation in the ’70s when racism of a certain kind was at a high pitch, and it nearly defeated that generation.
CP You’re talking about the spate of riots …
SH I’m talking about the riots, I’m talking about the Sus laws that picked up the kids on the street, the kind of criminalization of ghettos that happened in the ’70s, and the first generation who really had nowhere else to go, that had been born here, brought up in English schools, and were under enormous pressures. They drew on cultural resources to pull themselves together. For the current generation, the boys especially, there is a kind of diminution of a strong resistance culture, coupled with another kind of racism very much tied up with little Englanderism, with England, racing away from difference: Black, French, German … difference of any kind, which is the predominant mood in Britain at the moment. This has been very dispiriting, there’s a lot of individual survival, but there’s not that collective opposition or thrust, the counter surge of resistance culture, going on at the moment. There is a crisis for black men especially, in their teens and twenties, in terms of forming an authentic aspiration for themselves, which can be both black and British, which respects their blackness, their difference, but which also recognizes their deep involvement in British culture, which after all is three or four generations old. They don’t know any other place.
CP I think your analysis is right, because I do remember, in the ’70s, having a very, very strong feeling of political direction and purpose. However, it seems to me that today it would be very difficult for a young black kid living in a society which continues to be institutionally racist. Yet at the same time, there are black TV presenters being paid half a million pound contracts, and black footballers being signed for five or six million pounds. These days there’s a mythology of acceptance, while day to day problems have become worse …
SH Yes, it’s a very Thatcherized mix, and it’s one of the paradoxes that Thatcherism released. If you had depended on organized equal opportunities policies raising the opportunity for all blacks, slowly, institutionally, you would have been waiting till the next millennium. (laughter) Thatcherism opened up a lot of little gaps within the system, and that’s what has encouraged what I call the hustling instinct. There will be some black kids who will see an opportunity and can make it, there’s enough of that mythology around, but football is an interesting case. There are many of them signed, and the Sunday papers feature pictures of black players. But they are still regularly, ritually, racially, abused from the stands in three quarters of the places in Britain, including by their own home team and supporters. So it’s very, very mixed. You wouldn’t dream of starting a youth music program on television without six black faces. So they’re de rigueur in some way, if you want to signify street style on Oxford Street, you get a young good looking black man or woman to front your shop, so they’re both signifiers of envy, and at the same time, there’s this kind of little England, residual abuse …
CP Which, unfortunately, looks like it’s not going away.
SH Politically it’s very dominant …
CP In 1993, you gave a paper in Edinburgh called “Black and European,” which I’m afraid I haven’t read. What was the general thrust of the paper?
SH It was about following a train of thought which had developed in the ’80s, which suggested that one of the ways of working against this return to fortress England, to putting up the barricades and hiding behind heritage Britain, was the opening to Europe. This was not to romanticize Europe, but simply because Europe has always been one of the excluded zones in British culture. So the fact of Britain having to negotiate itself in relation to another culture, even though it was another white culture, people felt would be a rather good general experience for this society. But of course, the opening to Europe turns out to be an opening to a Germany, a France, an Italy, a Spain and a Portugal that is becoming its own fortress. It was this paradox of an opening, from British perspective, that immediately raised and reproduced its closures elsewhere in Europe. It was a utopian moment, that Europe was going to suspend all these closed structures, but it’s not going to happen, as you know very well, you’ve written about it yourself.
CP What do you think the long term cultural effects are likely to be of this retreat to what you termed, Heritage England?
SH Well, to be honest, it’s the worst sort of mixture, the combination of a deeply rooted, closed conservatism around a tiny myth of a nation with a homogenous culture. The country house, Jane Austen, all of that, on the one hand, coupled with a rabid short term individualism that is tied to the market place. There’s no way of calculating value, except to ask what the bottom line is.
CP This seems to me a particularly depressing narrative.
SH The biggest consequence is to foreclose alternatives. The major effect of Thatcherism is to restrict the terms in which any issue is discussed. There’s a lack of imagination. What I’m saying is, the worst excesses of Thatcherism are to be found in the timidity of the Labor Party, which is not an argument at all about going back to old style socialism. I myself have argued, very strongly, that the Labor Party is as much part of traditional England as red top buses. (laughter) It needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into at least the 20th century before we get to the 21st, so I’m in favor of that. But it’s the closing down of those imaginable alternatives in public policy, in how to deal with the forty percent of people who are below the poverty line, of thinking of health only in terms of private savings or private insurance schemes … If the conservatives win another term, and I suspect with whomever wins, we will see a very decisive closing up of the welfare state, as we have known it since ’45. Within ten years it won’t exist; the majority of people will be on insurance for health, private insurance for old age, private insurance for unemployment. The degrees of uncertainty and risk—what is called flexibility—really means the end of any long term perspective for a career or a life, and that is affecting most young people at the moment. They are in the process of giving up the idea of having a life project. They want a job for five years, and can’t think beyond that. My two kids are both about to go into the labor market, they don’t talk about what they want to do, they talk about how can they get enough to live for the next five years. Those are very, very long term shifts. The whole critique of Thatcherism was to try to sketch to the left, and people associated with non-Thatcherite politics to come up with a really imaginative alternative. You see, I have respect for Thatcherism. And my respect for Thatcherism was that for many years in Britain you thought no big idea would ever grip the English again, the last big idea was the empire … (laughter) But she actually gave them a few big ideas, they were horrendous ideas … but she did galvanize them, and in a way she showed that it is possible to think again about very, very well established institutions and relationships. So you can think again about the welfare state. She wanted us to think in a bad way, but you can think in a good way, an interesting way and an imaginative way …
CP Your admiration is that at least there was a process …
SH There was a process, there was thinking, and what one wanted to stimulate into life, on the left, was an imaginative rethinking of the same dimensions, and instead what we’ve had is adaptive politics.
CP It’s not a very good prognosis, so what’s going to happen to the cultural life?
SH No, it’s not a good prognosis at all, because it’s a recipe for continuing decline. Britain is drawing the horns in more and more around little England.
CP It involves sacrificing the arts.
SH Finished, finished … There’s no respect for that. Cultural life is not an area of serious investment over a long period of time. There will be a period of increasing racism, because this is not a climate which encourages openness to new experience. It’s a very defensive climate which sees everybody and any kind of difference as a fundamental threat to the whole history of British culture.
CP Of late, much has been made of this phenomena of the empire writing back, of Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri and Timothy Mo and Hanif Kureshi, and so on. Did you see this “British development” happening as an inevitable process of migration and decolonization?
SH What I don’t think I saw was that it would become a world wide, trans-empire phenomena. From the very beginning, the people I knew best when I came to England in the mid-‘50s were themselves already writers: George Lamming, Samuel Selvon. I went to University with Naipaul, a lot of us worked for the BBC world service with Andrew Salkey. So I was certainly aware that the migration experience, coupled with the independence experience, was going to lead to a big flowering of Caribbean writing. But of course, at that point, I didn’t perhaps see that indeed mass migration of this kind was going to become a huge phenomena in the second half of the 20th century. And that this would be coupled with decolonization, which would be followed inevitably by an attempt to rewrite that experience and rewrite the indigenous cultures that had formed up during the imperial moment.
CP What do you think your relationship as a writer, critic, and scholar is to the world of literature?
SH There’s a double role. One is a role of interpretation. An interpreter from the inside if you like. I’m not a creative writer myself, I would have liked to have been, but I didn’t go that way; but I’m very involved and interested in writing and its practices and I’ve shared many of the experiences that they’re talking about from another point of view. In interpretation there is a filling out of the connections which in a sense writers themselves ought not to have to be accountable for. I can talk about this as a generational phenomenon, they have to think about writing another good novel, that’s their job. The job of the critic, the culturist, is to sketch in the cultural framework. And then there is the question of what is criticism in relation to literature of this kind.
CP When you say literature, you mean film as well?
SH Yes, I mean film and all the arts produced out of this experience. And I think the insiderness of the explanatory interpreter role mustn’t spill out onto the critical role. This is a period which requires more than any other, a vigilance of criticism, because, it goes back to the idea I put to you earlier on, if culture is just reductive, then it cannot be judged and evaluated in larger cultural terms. I wrote a piece that has been reprinted a lot called “New Ethnicities,” in which I argued about the end of the essential black subject, by which I simply meant, the end of an argument which produced the blackness of the author as the last thing which needed to be said, the thing that clinched the argument. What I said was that we had gone through that moment—“This is the literature of a formally oppressed people who have the right to speak, it must therefore be good”—and were now in a moment where that was not enough. You couldn’t be ignorant of the fact that it was written by a person with a cultural and ethnic background from people who had never been writers before. Of course you have to take that into consideration, but you still also have to take into consideration the question of whether the work merited judgement in its own terms, irrespective of who produced it.
CP Your argument in this essay addresses itself to a British context …
SH Yes …
CP How do you think you would have approached writing such an essay in an American context, where it often seems to me that both in terms of critical feedback, and before that in terms of the politics of publishing and financing and production, standards are often neglected and people aren’t maintaining that degree of vigilance.
SH Well, I don’t know whether I’d have said it, if I’d been formed in an American context. I have said it to American audiences, and it’s caused a lot of argument and debate, as you can imagine. I don’t get a completely hostile or negative response to it, but this may be because I am a black Brit and it’s primarily addressed to a black British context. What I don’t know is whether they really take on board what that argument would mean in the American context.
CP Well, I think if you were an American addressing an American audience that you may need some help getting out of the lecture hall.
SH Yes, I agree, but this takes us to an interesting phenomena, which is the surprising attention which a relatively few black cultural critics in Britain have received in the U.S. There is a kind of trans-Atlantic fascination with this argument. We have had an impact out of all proportion to either our scale or the importance of what we are saying. So what interests me, is what is it that Americans hear in this debate, in the British context, that interests them? It’s obviously different from the way in which the debate is conducted in the U.S. And secondly, what do they make when they try to indigenize that debate in their own African American context? There’s a slightly different approach to it around the place of where race figures in. Both situations are clearly concerned with and articulated about the legacy and the presence of race in the formation. The African American take on that is a different one than the British one and that registers in the way in which black can figure in the debate as the opening of the argument, or the closure of the argument. I usually figure it as the opening of the argument. I have a view about race, it’s like the economy. Marx used to say, determination in the last instance. I never believed it, but determination in the first instance …
CP In many ways your work, and your life, and your experiences, remind me of your great antecedent, C.L.R. James, who, at one point in his life, said that it was Thackeray and not Marx who bore the heaviest responsibility for him. Reading your writings and talking to you, it occurs to me that it is as much Henry James and literature, that bears a responsibility for you, as Marx or any political figure.
SH Yes, C.L.R. James is and was very important to me. He was a model of what it might be to be a black intellectual, which was something that C.L.R. James held out for. Beyond a Boundary is a wonderful book, that is and isn’t about imperialism. It is and it isn’t about cricket. It is and it isn’t an autobiography. Like James, I like to talk about the relationship between culture and politics, I think there is a relationship and it’s not a directed or reductive one. And that means it is a displaced one. So always, one is wanting to see how connections can be forged which go on the bias switch, a scheme which goes in more than one direction, which provides you with an either or, etc. And that complex is what we have always brought from the modernity of our experience. That is the distinctive thing that C.L.R. James talked about when he said people from the Caribbean have something very special to say. Not because they’re gods, but because history has placed them in this bizarre, marginal position of double insights, double voices, double consciousness. Looking two ways.
SH Looking at the front, being at the border. In transition, in migration, in movement between. That’s how I experience, and we inhabit that in many more ways than just theoretically.
CP But wouldn’t it be fair to say that the 20th century has witnessed the full flowering of that Caribbean tradition of a double, and in some cases triple, consciousness with the emergence of individuals such as Marcus Garvey and Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
SH I quite agree with you.
CP The Caribbean has produced a disproportionately high number of artists, intellectuals, and significant political figures and leaders. Louis Farrakan’s mother is from St. Kitts, and Malcolm X’s family have roots in the Caribbean. The Caribbean achievement does seem to have emerged out of this sense of …
SH Double inscription. Yes. I’d say something even wider than that, it’s something which I said in an occasion when I talked with Salman Rushdie at the ICA, when we were all discussing our experiences as migrants. And I looked out at this audience, full of white faces. So I said, “We’ve bared our souls. Why don’t you all say something about this period we’ve all lived through together?” Well not a person in this audience would confess to being British, to being English. They were all from the north, which isn’t really English, or they had parents who are Scottish, or their people immigrated to America or to Australia or they’re part Indian. Everybody was claiming marginality. This thing that I thought I had to get out of, marginality, is completely centered. And it’s because migration and the mixture of cultures is such a fantastic historical phenomenon. It’s the unmarked historical movement of the second half of the 20th century. People on the move, on the move, on the move. My plane drifting across, driven across by tribal warfare, pulled to economic opportunities somewhere else, on boats, it doesn’t matter what, but moving all the time.
CP Let me ask you a couple more questions. First of all, what happened to the literary ambition?
SH For the first 25 years of my life I wanted to be a writer very much. Poetry first, and then I moved to fiction. I found more inspiration in American writers, black and white, than I found in British ones. Not because I thought theirs was a greater literature, but because the new world element felt closer to my own experience than others. So I read Baldwin, whose novels I like enormously. I thought they were in another league really. There was something rich in the variety of discourses and rhetorics that he had available to him. But I also wanted to write a big symbolic novel like Melville, get everything inside the whale. Get the whole of America. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of the New World. It’s a very mythic structure really. And the Caribbean is in that sense deeply bogged in the New World, in the way it formed out of nothing. The erasure of the indigenous peoples in the majority of the Caribbean islands was a bizarre, violent new start, like a primal scene in which all these people from somewhere else, Spain, and France, and Africa, and Portugal, all collide in these beautiful islands. So I was interested in some non-realist mythic writing like that. And then for a time after that—you can’t work under Henry James without falling under a Jamesian spell. These tendencies that never ended. Full of qualifications. But I like the intricate web of the late James, I thought James was the last novelist of interior consciousness before Freud. The next step had to be Joyce. Had to be the unconscious. The attempts to make the individual “I” so sensitive to every single nuance, to make it a kind of network, a web, of sensitivity.
CP I think Henry James was the last writer to attempt to make the “I” central, before the “I” temporarily disappeared beneath the literary weight of James Joyce.
SH Exactly. And I was interested in that, although my work wasn’t very good. It was very imitative, as it would be when you’re under the spell of a writer like Henry James.
CP What about Richard Wright?
SH I admired the novels, but I didn’t want to write like Wright. My empathy isn’t closely drawn to Wright.
CP He’s much more a novelist of ideology than any of the other writers.
SH Yes, and I didn’t want to be a novelist of ideology. I thought it ought to have an independent life of its own. In some ways I think Wright is more interesting than his novels, to tell you the truth. The life is fascinating and rather complex, tragic.
CP C.L.R. James told Wright that, “The artist in uniform ceases to be an artist.”
SH I didn’t know that, but it’s very true.
CP I wonder now, as you are inching towards possible retirement from teaching in Britain, what you feel about the Caribbean? I know you’ve been back and made films there, and maintain good, close contacts with the Caribbean. You left in 1951. It’s now 1996. Is it a different Caribbean now?
CP Do you think to yourself, my god the place has changed for the better. Or do you feel a sense of detachment from it or melancholy?
SH No. I don’t feel detachment from it. I maintain that terrible ambiguity about home. I never know it. I never know what question I’m being asked when I’m asked about home. On the other hand, when I go home I know it’s not my home. And I know it’s not my home principally because it’s a small place and all the people that I was at school with are still there, and all have had a different life from mine, I can literally see the divergence. I can’t possibly recapitulate the way in which they have lived the first 30 years of independence. I didn’t live them like that. It’s not an odd question of whether you can be friends or not, it just, it’s formed us differently.
CP When you look back to the Britain of 1951 and compare it to now, we have a different Britain. A leaner and less generous Britain at whose heart there is little optimism and much cynicism. How can this change—I mean apart from the obvious huge shift that would have to happen in the political infrastructure? In what manner could this country which is the most heterogeneous and the most cosmopolitan of European countries, yet which still insists on perceiving of itself in the most reductive, narrow and exclusive way, how do we bridge the gap between what we know is Britain and the image of herself that Britain exports? I ask you this because your work, and the work of countless artists of all disciplines, and from all backgrounds, have been addressing this problem. But even in the face of what we have been doing, the country’s definition of herself has been getting narrower.
SH The reason why we got engaged in this work was because ’round about the ’60s and ’70s, it did look as if the possibilities were there for destabilizing that older culture, which after all, has roots in a glorious past which is manifestly gone and is not coming back. It took them a long time, but one thought that by the ’70s, we did feel that the encounter with difference, here, in our own ground was gradually going to precipitate a greater openness. We hadn’t foreseen what the ’80s would be like, but I think there was an opening, and I think there’s been a closure. That is, the disappointment to me is not a sense of the inevitability of British racism and exclusiveness, as a kind of story with no variation in it. It’s more a disappointment because there was an opportunity, and an opportunity was missed. Or an opportunity arose which the culture didn’t take. So there’s been a quite effective closure since the ’80s and ’90s that wasn’t potentially there in the ’70s. I think the mix in the ’70s was very explosive, and part of the closure is a reaction to that. Still, the ’90s is England paying itself back for all the time with hokiness and pleasure and the heterodoxy … a puritan revenge which the British are extremely good at. It’s the loss of that possibility which is so depressing in the ’80s and ’90s.
CP And how does one nudge that door open again so that we might once more see a chink of light?
SH Well, the only way in which I think you’re allowed to do that now is if a much wider context has an impact on Britain. Nation-states and national cultures are now exposed to difference and the impact of difference from other places that they cannot insulate themselves against, and it’s more likely to come in that way than it is from any self-transformation in which the British do it themselves.
CP It has to come from the outside?
SH Yes, the idea which the British are only just beginning to take on, that the standard of living in Taiwan might be higher than it is in Britain, that there are global technology workers in Indonesia, and the Welsh valleys are competing for a slice of the same global cake. And their bargaining power is better, and their education system is better. They may not have so much freedom and they may still be badly policed, etc … One wonders how Britain can maintain its sense of itself as a naturally and inevitably homogenous culture, given the impact of this cultural diversity. But what I think I’m saying is, it’s weathered the challenge of that from within, which was what happened when we turned up. We turned up, we were the forefront of challenging it. It opened up in that and many other ways, and it found an effective way of closing. We’re not going to do it from inside. We may bore our way through to success individually, but we’re not going to have an impact on reshaping the culture, in a purely internal way. But we may, with forces outside. That’s our only hope I’d say, it’s a rather big prospect.
Caryl Phillips is the author of five novels, including Crossing the River. His new novel The Nature of Blood will be published this spring by Knopf.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.