Tag Archives: identity

A personal reflection on the novel ‘Jubilee’, by Shelly Harris

Another novel picked for our book club, and this one is the best so far.

Jubilee, a first novel by British/South African author Shelly Harris, is the story of two photographs. The first, taken during a street party for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. A seemingly idyllic picture which represents the growing multiculturalism of the UK at the time. The residents of Cherry gardens, adults and children, sit each side of a long table adorned with patriotic tablecloths, Union Flags, coronation chicken, and all sorts of other goodies. Satish is from an Indian descent family, recently displaced from Uganda by Idi Amin, the first non-white family on that street. He is joined in the photo by  the other 8-14 year-olds who live on this middle class street, with a few of the parents further in the background. One moment which looked so idyllic snapped in a photo which quickly went viral and became famous (in the pre-internet sense), but a moment which hid the true realities of the day. This was a day in which the racism that had sat hidden under the surface suddenly burst into the open, and scarred Satish and some of the others for life.

Fast forward 30 years and one of the children in the photo is trying to organise a reunion photo, in the same place, in similar positions, and by the same photographer. the problem is that Satish, now a successful cardiologist, really doesn’t want to remember that day, and the photo really won’t work without him.

I had expected to find this novel interesting, given it’s subject matter, but I hadn’t expected it to touch some aspects of my childhood too. I am mixed race, brought up in a very non-ethnically diverse middle class town in the north-east in the 1980s. My father is from London, and is white (pink in the sun); my mother is from Mauritius. Ethnically, Mauritius is very diverse and, with the island having no native population, comprises almost every skin tone there is. My mother is French-Mauritian, descended from some of the earliest European settlers but who have mixed in with everyone else from India, Africa and Madagascar, so her skin tone is Indian but her bone structure is more European. That makes me olive-skinned in the winter, and nicely tanned in the summer. I don’t really burn in the sun. So, not very ethnically different, but different enough.

That said,  thinking back to my primary school, I can only think of one other none white person in my class. She was Sun-Ye, and her parents owned the first Chinese take-away in the town. I didn’t really know her well so I can’t comment on how she found the experience of being in a minority, but I found my first and middle school years quite difficult with similar taunts that Satish had to endure in the book. Thankfully I never got it as bad as him and by the time I moved to secondary school – a different one to those in my primary and middle schools, all of these stopped.  Here are a couple of passages that really struck me:

Firstly, one about friendship. Cai is Satish’s best friend on the street and the Chandlers are older boys who live a few doors down.

The Chandlers were an anomaly in Cherry Gardens: looks cannons, lads who edged just the wrong side of all the indulgent terms which make bearable the behaviour of children. They were not mischievous, or quite a handful, they even surpassed that merry catch-all, boys will be boys… Of Satish himself, they were contemptuous, not because of the things he did – there was nothing he could learn here, nothing he could modify which would change their attitude, but because of what he was. He tried not to be around much when they were present. Yet Cai adored the Chandlers, braving their quixotic moods, thrilled just to be in their presence. He didn’t seem overly concerned about their attitude to Satish either. ‘They’re just having a laugh,’ Cai would tell thin. ‘Don’t take it so seriously’. (p120)

Cai was not a true friend. Ditching him at school or in front of the older boys he wanted to impress. What would they think if he was seen with Satish? I remember quite clearly being aware of one friend at school, Nicholas, who would never join in with the taunting. He was a good kid and sometimes he got the teasing with me. Sadly he moved away to a different school at about the age of eight and I didn’t see him again. There was another friend who I used to hang around with too, but his attitude was much like Cai’s, happy to spend time with the different-coloured boy when there was no-one much around, but who joined in with the others so that he wouldn’t be targeted too. At middle school, Nick’s place was taken by Richard, who lived round the corner and who was in another class. Again a thoroughly good friend.

Although it remained unpleasant, after a while I became a bit numb to the use of the term ‘Paki’ against me. It was the nickname that I didn’t like. A few times my parents had been on at the teachers to stop it, but nothing had really come of it and that had just put the name back on the map for some of the kids. Here’s a passage from earlier in the book, again about the Chandler brothers.

At first, Paul [Chandler] had called him ‘Diarrhoea’ -  a little skid mark on the whiteness of Bourne Heath. they Stephen, the younger and brighter of the two, came up with ‘Splatish’, and the pun had stuck for a long white, lingering until it was finally neutralised. In that since it was like ‘Paki’, a term used so frequently in the daily hustle of the playground that Satish had been mystified when his casual mention of the term had seen his dad barrelling in to the Head’s office to complain. This tactless intervention, which threatened so much of the painstaking work Satish had done to shore himself up socially, would not be allowed to happen again. His job was to parry the blows, or absorb them. He didn’t need a protector. (p57-8)

Age 10, middle school, I had become completely used to the term ‘Paki’ as a nickname and was just biding my time before leaving to go to an independent senior school elsewhere. One break time whilst playing football on the school field, a female teacher who was the form tutor for a different class heard some of the kids calling me that and decided to do something about it. My first reaction was ‘Oh no, it’s ok’ whilst internally thinking ‘please don’t rock the boat’. Fortunately, she thought it wasn’t ok and she managed to stop it. I don’t know what she did and I can’t even remember her name. I can remember which classroom she taught in but that’s about it. Somehow, in the space of a week or so, people had stopped calling me ‘Paki’. I am very grateful to her, whoever she is. About six months later I moved to a new school, and not once did anyone use a racist term against me.

So, reading this book has taken me on a personal recollection of aspects of my early years. These are some things that I hadn’t thought about for ages and which, in some ways, are still a little painful. It’s made me appreciate the good people who were around at the time – the friendship of Nick and Richard, and the efforts of the nameless teacher. Having also grown up and become a Christian, my identity is no longer based on what others think of me or my abilities. In this regard, I’m content and now very happy to have a skin tone that tans!

Shelly Harris clearly understands what it is to grow up in a very small minority, and she has been very astute in observing and recording the details in her novel. She is clearly a great people-watcher as well and manages to get inside the thoughts, emotions and irrationalities of a character. Jubilee is very well written to boot. She takes the main character back to face that horrendous day, and in a round about route to face up to them and move on. The book ends with a staging of the new photo and a regrinding of the central character.

Thoroughly recommended. 9/10

More on John Terry’s penalty miss

Following on from my post a couple of days ago, I found some more quotes by John Terry who missed the penalty that (he thinks) lost the Champions League final for Chelsea. The quotes are from the BBC news website.

“I am so sorry for missing the penalty and denying the fans, my team-mates, family and friends the chance to be European champions,” he said.

“I have relived that moment every minute since it happened.

“I walked forward to take it knowing that it was there to be won and it was all down to me. What happened next will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

“I feel I have let everybody down and this hurts me more than anything.

“I am not ashamed about crying. This is a trophy I have tried so hard to win year after year and it was just an uncontrollable reaction. I wear my heart on my sleeve and everyone knows that.”

John Terry does not need to be ashamed about crying, and he doesn’t need to apologise for what he did – the team tried hard but just came up short by the smallest of margins. He does need to forgive himself though, and know that his self-esteem and identity need not be linked to his success or failure on the football pitch.

Goals, goals, goals – success and failure

This was the final moment of the season. The moment the whole season had been building up to. Chelsea had already lost the League Cup and the Premiership in the final moments, now was the pick of the three. The most important.

1-1 after extra time. Onto penalties, Man Utd had missed one of theirs. It comes to the last penalty. John Terry steps up. All he had to do was score, and Chelsea would win the Champions League, the pinnacle of European club competition.

As he stepped up to the ball, he slipped and missed. Man Utd were back in the hunt, and would go on to win.

After the game, John Terry cried. I don’t just mean that he was sad at not winning. He was inconsolable. For 10 or 15 minutes, as the rain pelted down around him, he couldn’t look anyone else in the eye. He buried his head first in the ground and then in his managers shoulder. They, he, had failed.

From the Daily Telegraph

His tears said it all. John Terry, one of the toughest defenders in the world, has suffered broken bones and battle scars, but nothing compared to the bitter taste of defeat.

The Chelsea captain didn’t care that 100 million people were watching him on television as he wept inconsolably on the pitch after losing the Champions League final.

Haunted by his penalty miss which cost the cup Terry seemed unable to look team-mates in the eye and instead buried his face in the shoulder of his manager Avram Grant.

His fellow defender Ricardo Carvalho said: “We couldn’t stop him crying.”

Winning this competition had been a goal of Chelsea and John Terry for years. They had never been to the final before, and it may be a long time before they get there again. John may not get another chance. It was devastating.

How do we cope when we fail?

If we build our lives on achieving goals, whether sporting, academic, or career – nothing wrong with any of these – but if they are the thing on which our identity is built, failure is devastating. It is not just the goal that is not reached, but our whole identity and our way of coping with the world is affected. It seems to me that there are many people who do this, whose goals need to be achieved so they stand out from the pack. What happens when the pack catches up?

So what can he do? He can buckle down, set new goals, and work towards them. Yes. But he may fail again.

Or he can set his identity on something that is real, unswerving, and will not let him down. Something which is not dependant on success or failure.

In the Bible, the apostle Paul has a goal and he says this about it.

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”  (Phil 3:12)

His ultimate goal is secure, because Jesus has already taken hold of him and is pulling him towards God. His identity is based on that which is already achieved, Christ’s death and resurrection. That is how Paul defines himself, safe in the hands of God.

Now Paul is free to set new goals, and strive for them in the security that his identity is safe, even if he fails. He can go for them in freedom to stretch out for them, not in the fear of missing them. Succeed or fail, his identity is not riding on it.

Perhaps John Terry could do the same.

Shooting in Illinois University – Why again?

Why does this always seem to happen in the United States?  A gunman entered the campus at Cole Hall, a place where students tend to gather, opened fire, killed 6, injured many more, before turning the gun on himself.  Read more here (BBC) and here (CNN).

It doesn’t take much of a search to find other examples of similar events happening. Virginia, Pennsylvania Amish, Nebraska Shopping Mall, Columbine, Colorado Church, and there are many others.

Why does it seem to happen in the US? I don’t know the answer – I’m sure there are no easy answers, – comments welcome.

This problem is of course not confined to the US. In 1996 a lone gunman walked into a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, and murdered 16 children and their teacher, before killing himself. However, what followed seemed to be dramatically different. There was a “gun amnesty” – anyone who owned an illegal firearm could drop it into any police station anonymously without the possibility of charges. This had the effect of taking guns off the street. There was an immediate public outcry for tighter gun controls, which were introduced fairly quickly afterwards. Guns became harder to buy. I don’t think it has happened since (or at least, not as frequently as in the US)

I know it says in the constitution that everyone has the right to bear arms. This was introduced long ago for good reason. However society is no longer the same as it was in 1776. Is this a right that we need to give up in order to reduce the number of gun deaths? Surely there must be a way of protecting that right so that honest citizens can still hunt safely AND our children are protected in their schools and colleges. How about a better national register, or a law which bans guns from all residential areas (including in our homes), but at the same time allows gun clubs to exist for the purposes of hunting. These are only ideas, I’m no politician – but it seems like the NRA is too loud and powerful for any of this to change. Are they happy with the frequency of such shootings?

But what is driving people to kill and take their own life in the first place. Is life really that empty? Surely in a materialist consumer society where education is available where there is an abundance of life-enhancing technologies there would be no need for such action. Or is it ultimately empty at its core. Is genuine human relationship lacking? This emptiness seems to be resulting in a greater threat to US life than terrorism.

Society needs to rediscover the purpose of human life -  only this, and not the abundance of things, can lead to ultimate fulfillment. Who are we? What are we about? Why do we exist? How do we relate to each other? Have we been consuming (buying) out identities and purpose instead of discovering them? Weren’t we made to be creative, instead of buy creatively? Weren’t we made for long term committed, deep, ‘take the rough with the smooth’, relationships (which offer stability to soceity) rather than serial monogamy with no depth. How on earth can we understand each other and be understood if we don’t take the time to do it? Real depth in relationship cannot be bought or found instantly, but surely it is worth it to create a society without fear. In a society without fear, there is no need to kill or be killed.

“There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18)

Just opening the debate.

Just Do It!

 Ten years ago, Internet Entrepreneur Carmine Collettion got a tattoo. It was a simple shape, easily identifiable by many of us – the Nike swoosh.

Nike Swoosh

Why did he do it?

“ I wake up every morning, jump in the shower, look down at the symbol, and it pumps me up for the day. It’s to remind me every day what I have to do, which is, “Just Do It!” (Quoted in Naomi Klein, No Logo)

Nike could be said to be who he is. Since Nike has been a forerunner in brand development, it is unsurprising that it has also led the way in branding people. However, even their most prominent celebrity endorsers, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Arsenal, and Manchester United have not gone this far.

Brands can give us an image which indicates our social standing, class, and culture. So, if we want to change our image, we can simply buy stuff to project the identity we want. By buying branded products we subconsciously appropriate the values associated with the brand, whether the “Just Do It!” athletic aspirations of Nike, the “I’m Worth It” glamourous self-confidence of L’Oreal, or the cool, easy-going emphasis of Apple computers.

Ten years on, I wonder if he is still glad he got that tattoo?

What image do we want to project? And whose values do we want to take on?

The Bus

I don’t often wear my dog collar. Much of my work is informal and is made easier if I don’t. However there are times when a collar is necessary and a benefit as it clearly marks you out as from the church – such as hospital visiting or funeral visits. Because I don’t wear it often, when I do wear it, I am usually acutely aware that I have it on. It’s an obvious visual symbol of who I am and what I do.

Anyway, today I was driving along, a little late for a meeting when a bus pulls out in front of me. Not immediately in front – there was no danger of crashing, but enough to make me have to slow down and stop even when I had the right of way.

I glared at the driver.

Then I remembered I had my dog collar on, and I felt bad.

I guess I shouldn’t have, regardless of what I was wearing. If I can’t do something in a dog collar, perhaps I shouldn’t be doing it at all?

Just a little example of how easy it is to be two faced.