When BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed was a boy, he had a paper round. Sick of his first name being made fun of ("You got the hump? Haha"), he told the couple who ran the newsagent’s that his name was Neil. The ruse lasted until his mother got a call from them asking for a son whose name she didn’t recognise.
This is just one of the anecdotes in Ahmed’s first book, The Life and Times of a Very British Man, an engaging and rigorously honest look at what it means to be a mixed-race man in Britain today. Now 50, Ahmed grew up in Ealing, the only child of an English mother and Sudanese father who separated when he was still a small child. His colour meant being called a "jungle bunny" and being told to "go back home", while also experiencing a typical 1970s and ’80s English childhood with striking similarities to my own: bucket and spade holidays in Devon, rides on his Raleigh bicycle in his Adidas Gazelle trainers.
"I love this country. I love its very Britishness," Ahmed tells me when we meet at Bloomsbury HQ in Bedford Square. "My white family can trace its family tree back generations. But when you look at me, you wouldn’t say: ‘there’s a very British man’."
Throughout the book, Ahmed combines candid reflection on being brown and British with cultural context and political analysis, setting out his passionate belief in the multi-racial future of our nation. The origins of the book date back to 2008, and the election of Barack Obama to the White House, when Ahmed wrote a piece for the Observer (a paper he had just left to become director of communications for the Equality & Human Rights Commission) about the under-told story of mixed-race Britons.
The piece prompted a huge response, and suggestions from agents and publishers that he write something similar in long form. The book properly coalesced only some years later however when Ahmed—by then with spells as political editor of two national newspapers and BBC business editor under his belt—decided that he wanted to make it personal. "I realised I wanted to tell the story of me and my family to give a slightly different view of Britain. A lot of books around issues of identity can be hard for white people to read. I wanted to write something that didn’t make the reader feel guilty."
A cause for optimism
That’s not to say that The Life and Times of a Very British Man—a broadly optimistic read—is a whitewash of racism and prejudice. Ahmed, who reported on the Stephen Lawrence case when he worked at the Guardian, sees no cause for complacency. "I try to use cases like that of Stephen Lawrence and the Bijan Ebrahimi (a disabled Bristol man of Iranian origin who was brutally murdered in 2013) to show that there are still horrors that this country has to look deep into its soul about. It’s frankly depressing that we keep having the same debates about the police, about the justice system. The bureaucratic carelessness, the prejudice, the racism, it’s all still there. But I hope you come to the end of my book and feel a sense of hope."
While Ahmed is quick to say that he is not trying to offer solutions, he hopes that telling his own story will speak to those who might not otherwise engage in the identity debate. And he argues strongly for the importance of starting conversations with those who struggle with the rainbow nation Britain has become. "I think I use the phrase, ‘I get where you’re coming from.’ I get that you’re sitting there thinking: ‘This isn’t the country I grew up in, and I want the security of that sepia-tinted Britain of old.’ Once you’ve said that to people, they are more likely to engage with you," Ahmed says. "A conversation is better than shouting through a megaphone."
Ahmed demonstrates his own commitment to this approach by trying to understand where Conservative MP Enoch Powell was coming from 50 years ago when
he made his notorious "rivers of blood" speech. "All the time I was growing up, Powell was this kind of bogeyman, someone who said something really nasty about people like me. When I read the speech in full, I was surprised by how aggressive it was... even more so than I imagined it to be. It’s clearly extreme and also an unfair reflection of where our country was at the time. But it also touches on something that many people felt they agreed with. And so I pushed myself to try and understand that."
Ultimately, says Ahmed, our very Britishness is both a hindrance and a help in the debate we need to have about identity. "We’re quite a reserved nation and we find emotion difficult. And identity is the most emotional subject you can touch on. But there’s also the British notion of getting on with things. Just buggering on, as Churchill called it, when you are in a period of heightened fractiousness—like we are in at the moment—is a good thing. We just need to get on with the challenges in front of us and take our country forward. I hope this book adds a small sliver to the conversation about how we do that."
An emotional journey
The Life and Times of a Very British Man is indeed a temperate and thoughtful contribution to the conversation about race and identity in Britain. But at heart, it is what its title suggests: a memoir of a son, and his two parents whose differing colours and cultures combined to make him the whole he is.
Ahmed’s mother Elaine comes across as a remarkable woman: a teacher and doughty campaigner against racism in education who brought up her son on her own, at a time when having a "half-caste" child was widely regarded as shameful. But it is Ahmed’s largely absent father, Seddig, who is most present in its pages, genetically responsible as he is for his son’s identity-defining physical appearance. After his father’s death, Ahmed finally goes to Sudan, a place his father never spoke of, with his own children. His Sudanese relatives welcome them with open arms, and the trip is an emotional one.
"But visiting Sudan... does not make me feel more Sudanese. It makes me feel more British," writes this very British man.
England, cool, reserved, planned. Sudan, hot, in your face, loud, chaotic. These are the currents that are alive in me. The contradictions and joys of different influences, a feeling understood by many other members, I suspect, of the mixed-race, different face of Britain. Different identities alive in one person and alive in our country.
Britain has found it hard to have a conversation about what it has become, now it has arrived in the twenty-first century. Our very Britishness has stopped us talking about our very Britishness. I do not speak Arabic. Have visited Khartoum just once. And therefore I have never had the "from home" narrative to fall back on, the stories at my father’s knee to use as nourishment. The romantic red dust of the Sahara is not mine, the call to prayer is not mine, not in the way the River Thames is mine, the sands of a Devon summer holiday beach are mine, a pint down the pub is mine. I am as British as they come, like hot buttered toast and bacon sarnies. And still something of an alien in my own country.
- Gail Honeyman | 'I wanted it to be hopeful at the end'
- Sarah Pinborough | 'I hate it when it is all about the twist, and when the ending comes out of nowhere'
- Miranda Kaufmann | 'I hope my book isn't the last word on this'
- Junot Díaz | 'If you tell a child you’re a writer and don’t have a story for them, no one can make you feel more fraudulent'
- Jeffrey Boakye | 'I feel like the debate is opening, but it’s not always a safe debate'