I call this genre of book “slum lit”. Just as in the 19th century, when novelists chose to shock their readers by depicting slum life and the effects of capitalism on the poor,so in the 21st century we have a growing number of books written by shiny-faced graduates, who go out into the ex-council estates and bring back stories of deprivation, violence and, in this case, racism.
Hsiao-Hung Pai is a bit different in that she is from a Taiwanese background and has taken issue with how she has been defined in the UK. She came to London as a student and has lived here for 20 years, in that time writing a number of books. The book was financed by Sir David Tang, whose motivation, according to the author, is that “he firmly believes in fighting racism”.
I grew up on the kind of working-class estate that Hsiao and others constantly use as the subject of their books. My family still live there and it annoys me when I read yet another story about the racism, violence and poverty that exist in these corners of our cities and towns. It seems that no-one wants to tell stories about good neighbours whatever their ethnicity: people sharing the little they have, and the general feeling of friendliness that permeates the neighbourhood.
Reading Hsiao’s travels around Luton made me laugh. I can imagine how the locals responded to this Taiwanese woman, obviously out of place with, presumably, a middle class accent, walking around the estates, and asking for coffee in the local pubs. This lack of understanding of typical working-class culture would have marked her out as yet another explorer of “darkest England”.
In the book, she delves into the growth of the English Defence League (EDL), questioning at length people like Darren, representing the disaffected working-class in areas such as Luton, who have taken their disillusionment with the actual landscape of his hometown, as well as its ethnic profile, to the EDL. She also interviews Tommy Robinson, the ex-EDL leader, but again there are no great disclosures, and I cringed when reading her tale of going into a local pub to ask the barmaid for help in contacting the local EDL.
Her conversations with the local Muslim community reflect the real problems they face. Increasingly, they are victims of racism and stereotyped by national government and the media as anti-state and outsiders.
Hsaoi does report on the campaign against the EDL and the way in which communities support each other against racist attacks. She also comments on how the new communities are organising themselves into support groups, but this is not new. The history of this country is one of individuals and communities organising themselves to deal with the problems of living in what is often a harsh environment. My background is Irish, and our history is one of being outsiders for centuries, facing racism and discrimination that was not officially acknowledged in this country until the early 80s, when groups such as the Irish in Britain Representation Group refused to put up with it anymore.
One of the big issues in this country – as reflected in the constant discourse both from governments and individuals – is the loss of empire and the subsequent loss of a national identity for many people in England. As an activist in the Irish community, I found this reflected in many of the conversations I had with people not as lucky as I was in coming from one of the more vibrant poor communities. The independence movement in Scotland, the fissures within Europe, and the political situation across the Middle East have enhanced a sense of insecurity for many people in this country.
Do we need another book about racism and intolerance? I don’t think so. The EDL have come and gone, but the reasons why some poor people joined them have not. Books like Angry White People almost seem old-fashioned these days, which is reflected in its cover with the image of the white man with the EDL graffiti. What would be new and exciting is if publishers such as Zed Books allowed a right of reply for people who live in the areas mentioned by Hsiao.
If we want to defeat racism and intolerance, then those of us who believe in a fairer society need to help the people who are facing the onslaught of the austerity agenda. We need to show that we are on their side by working in those communities to create a better place to live, working with all their neighbours, wherever they come from.
Published by Zed Books £12.99