Growing up in Essex in the nineteen-eighties left you in no doubt about what it meant to be British. It was a simple, passionate belonging, a brew of love for Our Boys and Our Streets and Her Majesty and hatred of anyone or anything which threatened them, whether on the Falkland Islands or down in the subway which ran under Woodford tube station. To be British meant that the question 'where are you from?', had a resounding one-word answer, and if you had the bad luck to find it more complex than that, if before you were from 'here' you or people in your family had been from somewhere else, there was a test of allegiance you could be asked to take.
"The cricket test - which side do they cheer for?... Are you still looking back to where
you came from or where you are?"
Norman Tebbit, the head examiner, was a local MP and a senior figure in a Government which sold itself through a kind of Rorke's Drift identity politics, a last ditch defence of one-word Britishness against the Zulu hordes. The evil brilliance of choosing cricket (rather than, say, tennis) as the gold standard of belonging, was the constellation of anxieties it brought into play. When Malcolm Marshall bowled a bouncer or Sunil Gavaskar hit a boundary you could almost feel Tebbit and the one-worders flinching, horribly aware that the sporting skills 'We' had taught 'Them' were now being turned against the teachers, that the natural order was being monstrously upended.
In Woodford, where the sight of a black teenager on the street would send the Neighbourhood watchers scrambling for the telephone, the panic seemed a little far-fetched. Just a few miles outside the disputed 'inner city', white people ran things, no question about it. Cricket coverage was one of the few opportunities to watch 'Pakis' winning at something, one of the few places we seemed to be visible at all. There were no Asian footballers or pop stars, and if you saw a Paki on the TV, chances were he was either having petrol poured through his letterbox or forcing his daughter into a cruel arranged marriage.
Tebbit is no doubt still remembered fondly in the Essex borders, but where I now live the cricket test feels like a joke from the bad old days. If you ask the Somalis and Croats and Nigerians and Bangladeshis and Ugandan Asians and Australians and Greeks and Poles and all the rest of the British people who live round here 'where are you from?', the chances are they will answer 'Bush', or if you put the question a little further up the road, 'Grove'. A little further up the road from that is Willesden, the setting for Zadie Smith's White Teeth, a novel about a kind of Britishness that has nothing (and hence everything) to do with warm beer, Morris dancing and the loss of the Suez canal.
Smith uses Tebbit's words about the cricket test to head up one section of a tangled, sprawling story which entertainingly chases the business of origins through the pages of history books and into the genetics laboratory. It comes to us under the sign of Salman Rushdie, who has provided an approving cover quote, and it shares a lot of the good and bad qualities of Rushdie's own writing. The book is organised around a series of unlikely unions. Gap-toothed Jamaican beauty Clara Bowden marries innocuous old white printer Archie Jones. Archie is best friends with Muslim waiter Samad Iqbal, who he met in the dying days of the second world war, 'strange times, strange enough for an Iqbal and a Jones to strike up a friendship', in which as extremely young soldiers they found themselves separated from their unit on the Black Sea coast of Turkey. Over the years they conduct a blokeish down-at-heel friendship in the suitably mongrel setting of O'Connells, "an Irish pool house run by Arabs with no pool tables.":
you could be without family in O'Connell's, without possessions or status, without past glory or future hope - you could walk through that door with nothing and be exactly the same as everybody else in there. It could be 1989 outside, or 1999, or 2009, and you could still be sitting at the counter in the V-neck you wore to your wedding in 1975, 1945, 1935. Nothing changes here, things are only retold, remembered. That's why old men love it.
At O'Connell's Samad and Archie moulder slowly away while banging on about their various hobby horses, to the accompaniment of pork-free fry-ups cooked by Mickey and his cross-culturally-named sons Abdul-Mickey and Abdul-Colin. Meanwhile Clara Jones and Samad's traditionally-minded wife Alsana conduct a "rearguard action" friendship to balance that of their husbands, eventually including Alsana's lesbian "Niece of Shame" Neena. While Samad and Archie set the world to rights, Alsana worries about her family, "visited by visions of Millat (genetically BB; where B stands for Bengali-ness), marrying someone called Sarah (aa where 'a' stands for Aryan), resulting in a child called Michael (Ba), who in turn marries somebody called Lucy (aa) leaving Alsana with a legacy of unrecognisable grandchildren (Aaaaa!), their Bengaliness thoroughly diluted."
These characters form a kind of bridge from the certainties of the pre-Windrush Commonwealth to the full (and intermittently glorious) confusion of modern-day North West London, as lived by their children. Irie Jones, the two Iqbal brothers Millat and Magid, and Joshua Chalfen, the son of liberal Jewish intellectuals, occupy the emotional centre of the novel, and their attempts to build an identity out of the lego-set of available options are White Teeth's most felt, engaging passages. In a school whose microgeography ("patches, hang-outs, disputed territories, satellite states, states of emergency, ghettos, enclaves, islands") mirrors the macro-scale complexities of the city , Millat oscillates between black-power-inflected Islamic fundamentalism and the life of a blonde-chasing skunk-smoking bhangramuffin. His serious brother Magid is sent back to the old country, and returns to align himself with Joshua's geneticist father Marcus Chalfen. Joshua himself rebels against Marcus's "Futuremouse" experiments by joining a radical animal rights cell, while anxious, overweight Irie Jones finds the household of feminist Joyce Chalfen an escape from the constrictions of life with her mother and fanatical Jehovah's Witness grandmother.
The book stages a kind of ideological car crash, where post-sixties "Chalfenism" goes head on against the cartoon Islamism of Millat's KEVIN group (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation), the apocalyptic Christian conservatism of "Bowdenism" and the vegan dreams of the animal rights movement, to name but a few of the groups, tendencies and free-floating points of view which spin giddily round the book. Smith spreads her satire evenly across all her subjects, maintaining a wry, slightly world-weary perspective that spares no one and retails no particular solution, settling instead for a kind of celebration of confusion, a relish in the sheer convolution of cause and effect that shapes her characters' lives.
At its best White Teeth feels like a long overdue book. Since the Second World War there has been a steady drip of novels about black immigrants in London (Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners and Colin McInnes's City of Spades are early examples) but the narratives have tended to be just that, the story of immigrants, of outsiders gaining or failing to gain acceptance into a world whose terms are set by a native white population. Only recently has a body of second-generation fiction arisen, dealing with the experience of those of us who have always already found ourselves 'here', and whose Britishness eclipses our relations with the other countries in which our parents grew up. Hanif Kureishi's work broke new ground in this respect, and the massive popularity of the black genre fiction published by imprints like Payback and the X-Press is evidence of a reading public hungry for British-set stories of yardies, babymothers, true players and dancehall queens.
Zadie Smith, who as well as being mixed-race is also young, attractive and a Cambridge graduate, has been eagerly, even hungrily snapped up by the British publishing industry, who have paid £250,000 for 'White Teeth' as part of a two book deal, and look likely to shortlist her for one or more of this year's major literary prizes. The time, it seems, is right for Smith's version of Britishness, and the hype surrounding her is certainly a sign of a changing cultural climate. While this is infinitely preferable to the cricket test or the neurotic pre-Suez nostalgia of Majorism, it is hard to feel that the rush to garland this particular young writer is entirely value-neutral. The New Labourite rebranding of Britain has coopted second-generation immigrant achievements (along with pop music, fashion and design) as a sign of the Blairite renaissance, a move which sits ever more uneasily with the bubbling anti-immigrant panic. One can't help feeling that White Teeth is being sold as a piece of Islingtonian (or Chalfenist) beach reading, giving the usual white liberal reading public a reassuring frisson of contemporaneity while they vote to send the parents of the next generation of Zadie Smiths off to asylum-seeker's detention centres.
Marketing aside, one of the pleasures of White Teeth is that it takes the existence of black British people as a given, not an issue. It is a book which allows itself the luxury of being whimsical, instead of strident or leadenly 'political', and hence has room to be very funny about the absurdities people perpetrate when they try to assimilate, integrate or simply understand each other. The confusion felt by Asian kids delivering tinned food for Harvest Festival will strike a chord with a lot of people, as will the excruciating teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones, whose affair with Samad Iqbal is conducted through a haze of toe-curling political correctness. ("I don't think", she tells her music class, "it is very nice to make fun of somebody else's culture... how would you like it, Sophie, if someone made fun of Queen?" ) . The Chalfens, whose own immigrant status is merely buried a couple of generations deeper than that of the Iqbals or the Bowdens, will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever crossed the threshold of a particular kind of Hampstead household, ("a college chair for Marcus had seen them through the eighties boom and bust, financing an extra bathroom, a conservatory and life's pleasures: old cheese, good wine, Winters in Florence...") while the activists of KEVIN, whose politics come as much from Public Enemy lyrics as Quranic exegesis, hit a much-needed light note at a time when conservative Islam is being constructed as the great post cold war threat to the Western consensus.
With so many -isms on board, it is hardly surprising that White Teeth sometimes totters under the weight. Some of its characters seem to exist primarily as vehicles for ideas, and the book has a tendency to over-reach for significance, as in the long discussion of Samad's descent from Mangal Pande, the mythologised figure who fired the first shot of the Sepoy Uprising of 1857. ("So. Let me get this straight. Now you're telling me that without Pande there'd be no Gandhi...no bloody Independence...") No race or gender change is left unrung, so the archetypal old git to whom the Harvest Festival food is delivered reveals he is gay, and a Chalfen ancestor somehow inevitably turns out to have been a confidante of Freud. Sometimes an atmosphere of library research takes over altogether, as in the peculiar section where the KEVIN committee discusses the comparative merit of several translations of the Quran, a chat between working class Muslim kids which arrives complete with bibliographical references:
Would it be one of the untrusty but clear Orientalists: Palmer (1880), Bell (1937-9), Arberry (1955)? The eccentric but poetic J.M. Rodwell (1861)? The old favourite, passionate, dedicated Anglican convert par excellence Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1930)?...
Despite a veneer of technical detail, Marcus Chalfen's "Futuremouse" project, which provides the rationale for a rather clunky set-piece finale, feels particularly unconvincing. Chalfen's academic and institutional context is unexplored, and the mouse is presented as a product of his individual genius, something he has more or less cooked up in his study at home. Given that biotechnology, and especially the area of transgenic animal research, is the preserve of private corporations and university departments with complex ties to industry, and given both the collaborative nature of these processes and their uneasy relationship to some of the values Marcus and Joyce are portrayed as espousing, the whole thing rings hollow. Marcus's world always feels like that of an arts professor or a social scientist, not a research geneticist.
Smith's writing is reminiscent of Salman Rushdie in its compendiousness, range, ear for language, and promiscuous mingling of registers. Like Rushdie, it sometimes sacrifices emotion for effect, but since this is a first novel and the author is still in her mid-twenties, this seems like a quibble. White Teeth has that sense of the artificiality of identity which might be described as the defining second-generation trait, and one hopes it will be discovered by the people it is about, as well as the people who give advances and award prizes. The children of immigrants are always peculiarly well (albeit uncomfortably) placed to view the British black comedy of race, nation and culture. Smith takes that comedy out of the melting pot. Next time, the fire.
this piece was commissioned but never printed by the London Review of Books
Willesden Dodgers - Jive Rhythm Trax - 1982: