Making Friends with the Mail (2003)

Statement read by Jonny Geller on behalf of Hari Kunzru: November 20th 2003.

My apologies for not being present today, but I am in India attending a family wedding. It is a great honour to have been awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and my thanks go to the judges who have recognised my book. As one of the longest established British literary awards, the John Llewellyn Rhys carries particular weight among writers and readers, and thus it is with regret that I find myself unable to accept. My reason for declining is the sponsorship of the prize by the Mail on Sunday. Along with its sister paper the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday has consistently pursued an editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees and asylum-seekers, and throughout their political and social coverage there is a pervasive atmosphere of hostility towards black and Asian British people. As the child of an immigrant I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail's editorial line. The atmosphere of prejudice it fosters translates into violence and I have no wish to profit from it. The Impressionist is a novel about the absurdity of a world in which race is the main determinant of a person's identity. My hope is that one day the sponsors of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize will join with the judges in appreciating this.

Text published in The Guardian 21.11.03

I'm writing this in a small town in South India, and being so far away from London literary gossip, I have been relatively insulated from the reaction to my decision to turn down the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. I chose to do so - and to do so publicly - because otherwise I would have felt like a hypocrite. I understand that some of the judges are angry at the use of the prize luncheon as a political platform. To them I can only apologise and say that sometimes questions of literary value are inseparable from politics. The presence of the Mail on Sunday as sponsor of the prize made this such a moment.

The John Llewellyn Rhys prize itself is a venerable British literary institution. It has been won in the past by several writers whose work I admire, writers like Angela Carter and Jonathan Coe. I was, like any young novelist, honoured that a jury had chosen to shortlist my first published work. But if one is to take a book prize seriously, one has to ask about its function. For the winning writer this is obvious. It brings publicity and may constitute the first (perhaps faltering) steps towards inclusion in a canon. For a sponsor it is a way of linking their product to the actual or supposed cultural value of literary activity. By accepting I would have been giving legitimacy to a publication that has over many years shown itself to be extremely xenophobic, an absurdity for a novelist of mixed race who is supposedly being honoured for a book about the stupidity of racial classifications and the seedy underside of Empire.

One of the ugliest developments in recent British political life has been the emergence of the 'asylum seeker' as a bogeyman for Middle England. I have spent some years feeling depressed about the extraordinary media hostility towards refugees, those claiming asylum and those 'economic migrants' whose crime it is to sneak into a rich country looking for a better quality of life. This point of view does, of course, sell papers. There is a sector of the British public more than willing to buy tall tales of scrounging, criminality, disease and vice. The Mail has always been quick to cash in on prejudice and its cynical promotion of ignorance over tolerance has always made me angry. And it isn't merely media game-playing The Mail's campaign to persaude its readers that they live in dangerous times, that the white cliffs of Dover are about to be 'swamped' or 'overrun' (this unpleasant, dehumanising language - the language of vermin, of viral spread) by swan-eating Kosovans or HIV positive Central Africans would, in isolation, be merely amusing. However the attitudes it promotes towards immigrants have real consequences. Bricks through windows. Knives in guts.

Standing up for refugees seems, at the moment, to be an unpopular cause. British politics addresses itself to the swing vote at the centre, the nervous middle englanders who listen to the opinions of the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. Thus the Blair government is keen to show how tough it can be and we are presented with the unpleasant spectacle of privately-run prison camps and a Home Secretary who always appears to wondering aloud why They can't be more like Us.

My politics start from a different perspective. Britain is a wealthy country, and a safe country. We also have a reputation as a fair country, a reputation earned, paradoxically, by generations of hard-working imperial administrators who believed in the old fashioned public school values the Mail pretends to uphold. In the refugee panic we seem to have forgotten this. We have a duty of care for refugees, and it is distasteful to watch our politicians doing their best to shirk it, in order to persuade nervous swing voters that their rose-trellised cottages are safe from the dark hordes across the channel.

What is an 'economic migrant' but someone who has followed that enlightened and tolerant sage Norman Tebbit, and 'got on their bikes to look for work'? Our global system promotes the free movement of capital as its primary value yet it prevents the free movement of people to follow that capital, which concentrates itself behind tightly controlled borders while the hungry masses look in, their appetites whetted by satellite tv images of the consumer wealth they are denied. Wouldn't you jump a train or hide in a lorry for a chance to live on the other side of that border? I know I would. Every time you go to a restaurant, every time you stay in a hotel or walk over a clean floor in a public building, you may well be feeling the benefits of 'economic migration'. If you don't like Them coming Here, then the solution isn't to chuck them in prison, but to redistribute global wealth so they don't have to. Only desperate people travel thousands of miles from home to clean toilets.

I want my work to help reduce prejudice, not reinforce it. Accepting the John Llewellyn Rhys prize would, sadly, have been a betrayal of that principle. Instead I have been afforded an opportunity to put a different case. For that I am very grateful, as I am to my agent Jonny Geller, who bravely delivered my statement to what I can only imagine was a rather icy reception at the Reform Club.