Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West by Imran Ahmad
Review and Author Interview
It takes considerable courage to put your baby picture on the front cover of your first book, particularly one taken in a suit for the Karachi Bonnie Baby Competition (which the author lost, due to the 'blatant nepotism' of the organiser, who ensured that her own baby won). This combination of nerve and self-deprecating humour runs throughout this entire memoir. Written in an unpretentious, present-tense voice, with many comic episodes and recollections of adolescent angst, the book has drawn comparisons with Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ½, although it was not written to mimic the cult classic. In his Albion interview, Ahmad remarks that "I very much like Adrian Mole, but I didn't deliberately choose an Adrian Mole style of writing. I wrote in the style which came most naturally to me."
Ahmad had always wanted to write, but it took him a while to take the initial plunge: "I always knew that I would (or should) write a book. I seemed to have been pre-programmed for this. Whenever anything of significance happened in my life, I could feel that a part of my mind was acting as a detached observer, writing about the event even as it was unfolding. This goes back to the earliest days of childhood.
"I remember always taking a sensuous delight in empty notebooks and piles of unused paper. I wanted to write so much. When I first acquired a basic computer in the mid-eighties, I excitedly bought a word processing package so that I could write something, even though I had no printer. But there was a problem. Although I wanted to write, I didn't know what to write about. I was too shy in my younger days to be able to write honestly about my experiences and emotions. That took decades to unlock.
"Even then, I assumed that writing a book would be a huge burden of work, and this kept putting me off. I was focused on how far away the end goal was --a finished book-- and this discouraged me from starting the journey. But, when I finally started, it was pure joy. I enjoyed it so much, and since most of the book was already written, inside my head, the words just leapt out. It was only a question of how fast I could type: it wasn't work at all. I didn't have a specific motive in writing the book, but I did believe that if I enjoyed writing it, people might enjoy reading it."
Ahmad's family immigrated to England from Pakistan when he was still an infant. His family's experience in sixties and seventies England was one of struggle to make ends meet in the face of racial discrimination: landlords often took advantage of them or refused to rent to Pakistanis, and the dominant society did not view Ahmad's university-educated parents as professionals. Eventually, however, through profoundly hard slog, they managed to save up enough to buy a house, and throughout the narrative, his family's material circumstances improve. The reader senses Ahmad's parents in the background working to make a life for him and his siblings, but the focus is on the young Ahmad's impressions of the world around him. In this part of the memoir, early childhood memories are recalled with startling clarity. The author describes his experiences of two different infant schools, one in an ethnically-mixed neighbourhood, where he was made to feel welcome, and one in a less diverse area, which subtly excluded him. More aggressive racism awaited Ahmad at grammar school, at the hands of a small coterie of bullies. In our interview, however, he stresses that this was not constant or crippling discrimination: "I have to emphasise that whilst racism was present in my childhood, it was not prevalent enough to define me and it certainly doesn't cloud Unimagined. It's there, but it's not all there is."
He also insists that racism does not explain why, although a gifted child, he sometimes failed to make the marks he wanted. It was more to do with his choice of Science over Arts subjects. "My academic failures can be attributed only to me. They have nothing to do with racial attitudes. I can barely identify a handful of teachers, throughout my academic life, who might have had an attitude to me which was based on my race. No-one told me overtly that I couldn't study Arts subjects, but I picked up and assimilated from my parents an understanding that Science was what one pursued, and Arts was just something temporary along the way. The fact that Arts was fun and fascinating and Science was hard work just served to confirm that Science must be valuable and Arts must be frivolous. Now I look back wistfully at my university days and think, 'If only I had been studying something I really enjoyed, what an even better experience it would have been.' Chemistry was excruciatingly dull, and that is why my progress in it was very hard work and not always successful."
At grammar school and university, Ahmad's response to racism was to turn himself into a quintessential English gentleman, wearing the best suits that C&A could offer and adopting a BBC accent, a reaction that combines defensiveness, class aspiration and adolescent dandyism. Looking back on it today, the author reflects that "it's one of a possible range of responses [to racism], and probably not the prevalent one. People are more likely to develop suspicion, bitterness and segregation. But it's more complicated than that, in my case. All teenagers look for a role model, who influences how they dress and fashion their hair, and who gives them a sense of identity. In my case, it was Simon Templar, The Saint, whom I watched on television and understood to be a hero, a 'good' man with courage, who (as I say in Unimagined) 'helps good people and punches bad people and drives a sports car called a Volvo.' The updated series Return of the Saint came out just in time to provide me with a role model for my late teenage years, in terms of clothing, hairstyle and attitude."Though some aspects of his adolescent persona might make him cringe now, he defends his right to reinvent himself in this way. "We should all be free to define ourselves how we see fit, and not be constrained by stereotypes imposed upon us, by either our 'own' communities or the broader mainstream community. This applies to everything, including what we believe, what we study, what role we play in society, and, most importantly, whom we choose to make a life with. On these matters, we should answer to no-one else but ourselves. If I chose to speak in BBC English, rather than colloquial, accented English, and if I chose to wear smart, conservative clothes, and keep my hair neat and tidy, then that was my choice." Ahmad muses on the issues raised by his choice of clothing and accent. "Does that make me an English gentleman, or someone attempting to be an English gentleman? Does it make me a snob? Should I speak and dress casually so as not to be perceived as a snob? By whom? What is the definition of 'casual'? Am I getting 'above my station' if I come across as posh? It's a difficult issue and, of course, underlying it is the desperate need to belong."
Ahmad's childhood seems to have been much like that of any other boy during the sixties and seventies, collecting Tarzan bubblegum cards and living from one Dr Who to the next. Islam made its presence felt mostly in smaller ways, such as having to turn down pork whenever it was offered to him, despite a joyous early experience of Spam. His religion became more important to him as he grew up and started taking part in ritual prayers. He succeeded in coping with challenges from other students by combining devotion to his own faith with tolerance of other religions, and drawing strength from friendships with non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
Following university, he found professional fulfillment in a corporate career. In spite of recent events, he tells me that he remains happy with his life in England: "I feel very positive about my place in English society and I never could have imagined how well things would turn out --so much better than the dark days of the sixties and seventies, when there was so much talk of sending us all 'home.'….When you look at the whole picture it's much easier to feel positive about Britain and the West than anywhere else." Things are, however, still not perfect. "Attitudes to immigrants had definitely become more tolerant over the last couple of decades, but this has now reversed to some extent, due to immigrants once again occupying a prominent role in the minds of the indigenous society. I think that in the seventies, there was a kind of understanding that we wouldn't all be sent 'home,' but that all further new immigration would stop. There did seem to be a lull in immigration--real or perceived, I don't know—for many years, and then in the last few years perception of it has taken off again, and caused all the familiar old problems of people feeling threatened and disadvantaged because of immigrants.
"For Muslims, the situation is more complicated. In the old days, the indigenous population didn't generally know or appreciate the difference between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. In fact, television sit-coms from that era sometimes had composite characters who might have Sikh turbans but no beards, and were described as 'Pakistani.' Whilst there has been a pronounced general decline in the acceptability of racism against Asians, Muslims have recently become identified as a distinct group. There's no such thing as 'the Muslim community' as a single unified entity but, unfortunately, people do tend to think in simplified tribal terms. But I am pleased to say that I personally have not suffered from any Islamophobia, though I can't speak for everyone."Ahmad is currently involved with the group British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and I asked him what this is about. "To clarify, in BMSD we are not trying to promote atheism or a society without religious values, although we are happy for people not to be religious, if they so choose. But since people have a very broad spectrum of religious (and non-religious) beliefs, and there is no consensus on which is the 'true' religion (and there never will be), then the only way for effective decision-making in a healthy society is through a democratic process which issecular, i.e., gives equal rights to everyone, whatever their religion (or non-religion). That is what we mean by secular democracy. It's OK for political leaders to have religious faith, but their decisions have to stand up to objective scrutiny, which is independent of any faith. I also feel very strongly that no individual, group or gender should have any theological or regressive cultural values imposed upon them."
Unimagined is a delightful story of a shy, romantic, bookish boy growing up in a society which sometimes makes him feel less than at home, but in which he nevertheless succeeds in making a place for himself. It is a hopeful tale about negotiating two different cultures. Readers will warm to the young Ahmad's awkwardness, fascination for cars, and clumsy pursuit of his ideal woman, who will be beautiful, capable, intelligent, 'utterly vivacious,' and an excellent driver. (The memoir does not reveal the ultimate outcome of this quest, and Ahmad remains coy about it in our interview, insisting that it must wait for the sequel).
This memoir is gentle, very funny, and quietly assertive. It could not be more refreshing or timely. --Isabel Taylor
Many thanks to Imran Ahmad for his time. The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor. The Unimagined website is www.unimagined.co.uk.
Although the word is somewhat overused today, it would not be going too far to call Ronald Blythe's Akenfield iconic. In Blythe's unsentimental but compassionate survey of life in a small East Anglian village, evoked through astonishingly natural interviews with the inhabitants, he eschewed all the roses-round-the-door clichés and tapped into an ancient culture. Although he was not aware of it at the time, he also captured a rural community on the brink of enormous changes: the introduction of the huge combines, the decline in importance of the agricultural labourer, the amalgamation of small farms into larger ones, and the influx of people from the city.
Canadian journalist Craig Taylor (no relation), who now writes for the Guardian, read Akenfield as a young man in Western Canada and was entranced by it. Writing a sequel to such a book requires a good deal of nerve, but his sequel compares well with the original. Like Akenfield, it is a fascinating sociological study. Taylor interviews a wide range of people, including a retired gamekeeper with a feudal outlook, migrant Portuguese and Polish agricultural workers, and a man with a metal detector who once found a bronze Roman dog.
The changes that have taken place over the decades that separate the two works are startling, and many -though not all—are depressing. The interviewees describe the dying-out of local shops, the transformation of the village into a commuter town, and the lack of opportunities in farming for boys whose forbears worked as agricultural labourers for centuries. A small but symbolic and exceptionally sad detail is the demise of the numerous English apple and plum varieties: "I think in years to come the English apple will be gone," says an orchard foreman, who provides a handwritten list, at the back of the book, of all the types he can remember. There are some surprising constants, however. The Church-Chapel (or Anglican-Baptist) divide, so strong in Akenfield, is still alive and well.
The section on 'Incomers' explodes a range of urban myths about the countryside, such as the idea that it is quiet ("There's the rookery nearby. There are 100 rooks up there. The noise is incredible"), or that country life is more sociable than town life. Even local people lament the loss of the community spirit that accompanied such vanished activities as gooseberry-picking. Tensions over the townie-rural relationship run throughout the book, with many interviewees expressing ambivalence about it. Class divides exacerbate this situation: the picture that emerges is one of local people unable to carry on their traditional occupations or live in the houses that their forebears owned, forced by economic necessity to serve the incomers in a range of capacities, with a layer of even poorer migrant farm labour below them. In the interview with Ronald Blythe that forms the end-piece to the book, the 83-year-old writer remarks that, although we should not mourn the passing of a way of life that involved seventy hours of hard work a week and one day off a year, "there's….a sense of loss in villages like this one that isn't articulated."
It would be unfair to describe the book as gloomy, however. Some of the interviews are amusing: the vicar remarking, of the religious beliefs of the locals, that "the Holy Spirit doesn't always get that much of a look-in," and a local dairy farmer relating how, in his youth, he flirted with punk, but without great conviction because "you walk out and see the birds flying in the sky, the trees swaying in the breeze and think, Anarchy, what?" The pages are crowded with pungent and engaging personalities. Some of the stories they tell are positive. There are the new pub managers who, brought in to run the pub after a disastrous attempt at modernisation made locals desert it in droves, are reviving it as a hub of social life by restoring its old ambience. A strong sense of pride in place comes through in many of the interviews, and not everyone completely regrets all the recent changes. The negative aspects of the old agriculture —the terrible poverty and the way farm labourers were treated—still linger in the memories of some of Taylor's older interlocutors, some of whom wish that they could have had access to the new combines during their working lives.
Bittersweet and heart-warming, this is a revealing look at a community that has undergone tremendous changes since Ronald Blythe's childhood during the agricultural depression of the interwar years, which he describes in his Prologue: "we were brought up in a kind of beautiful, ruinous landscape of great rural poverty. But we didn't know it, because the fields were full of wild flowers."--Isabel Taylor
Mustn't Grumble: An Accidental Return to England by Joe Bennett Review
Simon & Schuster, 2006
In this charming travel book, a modern-day retracing of H. V. Morton's In Search of England route (with only a few deviations), Joe Bennett, an expat who has been living in New Zealand for twenty years, turns a quizzical but affectionate gaze on modern England. Poignant in places, and extremely funny in others, this gently meandering narrative is a perfect summer read.
Bennett has a very natural style, and when his prose soars, as it does in the atmospheric section on Dartmoor, it gives the impression of being totally unstudied. His narrative voice is engaging, self-aware, and wry; he shows a distrust of the breezily confident Englishness radiated by Morton, and this saves him from the gushiness to which Morton is occasionally prone. The entire book is imbued with a mild, existentialist melancholy, and there are frequent flashes of human insight.
The author reserves whatever venom he has for the heritage industry and its crassly materialistic marketing of various English landmarks. He throws a magnificent fit at the point in the narrative where he gets to Land's End and discovers that a sort of theme park has been built around it ("Am I alone in finding this stuff repellent? No, more than repellent. I find it simultaneously absurd, hateful and terminally saddening"). But this is not one of those Everything-is-Rubbish books strangely popular with some middle-aged English males. Bennett is alive to the beauty of the unspoiled places that he discovers, appreciative of other people — vivid character sketches and insightful pieces of sociological observation are sprinkled throughout— and bewildered by the fear of violent crime displayed by the inhabitants of secluded Arcadias.
Many of the comic interludes are overlaid with a certain sadness, but others are purely funny, such as the episode of the uncooperative shower: "When I turn it on in the morning it delivers cold water in pulses. Between pulses the showerhead droops. During pulses it swings around on its armature like an alien seeking prey."
Some other reviewers have found the book too Eeyore-ish, but this is odd; it is, in fact, full of hopeful moments. However, Bennett unnecessarily baffles the reader by giving each chapter an enigmatic title, making it difficult to find, for example, the section on Truro again. Although one can peer at the tiny maps which begin each chapter, a list of the places visited, with corresponding page numbers, would have been helpful.
This is a multifaceted book: a superb travel narrative that avoids sentimentalism and hyperbole, a humane reflection on middle age, Englishness, and the meaning of 'home,' and a series of extremely amusing vignettes. It is also a paean to the warm companionship provided by the right sort of English pub (Bennett seems to come across rather a lot of these in the course of his peregrinations). Mustn't Grumble is a demonstration of how modern travel-writing should be done. --Isabel Taylor
Londoners' Larder: English Cuisine from Chaucer to the Present by Annette Hope
Mainstream Publishing, 2005
In this book, Annette Hope gives us an informative and entertaining survey of London's gastronomic culture since the Middle Ages, by sketching the lives and culinary enthusiasms of famous London writers from Chaucer to Virginia Woolf. For each century, she provides a selection of representative recipes, all of them unusual.
There are numerous glimpses of historical London, such as the unfamiliar, still partly rural town of Shakespeare's time, when children skated on a frozen-over swamp where Liverpool Street Station now stands. As befits its subject, the book contains tremendous detail on the development of London's food culture, including the histories of famous pubs and restaurants. In the last section, "The Changing Larder 1939-2005," Hope examines the many dietary changes since the beginning of World War II: the appalling effect of rationing on the cookery of wartime and post-war housewives ("the majority of the population, especially in cities like London, seemed to have lost both knowledge of and interest in good food"), the Elizabeth David revolution, and the recent diversification of Londoners' diets to include many foods from different cultures. (Fascinatingly, Hope points out that the takeaway habit is not a new phenomenon: during the Middle Ages, many ordinary Londoners could not afford their own kitchens or fuel, and would buy their meals from the cookshops whose descendants still exist today in the East End, selling eel pies). Throughout the narrative, Hope's style is erudite, elegant, and witty.
Some of the trivia is delightful. For example, while England was Catholic, the strictures against eating meat during Lent did not apply to barnacle geese, which were considered fish "because they were thought to breed in shells attached to trees standing in tidal waters." There are numerous little-known facts about the writers themselves: very few will know that Charles Dickens' wife Kate, under the alias Lady Maria Clutterbuck (a name surely worthy of one of her husband's creations), penned a cookbook plaintively entitled What shall we have for Dinner? or that Arnold Bennett, known for his grim realist fiction, had a very decadent omelette named after him. Hope sprinkles her account with amusing quotations from period writings, such as the rhetorical question posed by an eighteenth-century commentator, outraged at the spread of the tea habit, "Were they tea-sippers, who won the fields of Cressy and Agincourt?" A forthright lady, also of the eighteenth century (it seems to have been an opinionated time), rails against the fashion for French cuisine, complaining "So much is the blind Folly of this Age, that they would rather be impos'd on by a French Booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook."
Given that the book focuses solely on London, it seems rather sweeping to subtitle it English Cuisine from Chaucer to the Present, not least because it leaves out rural cookery, a totally different English tradition (and one of which Hope is well aware). It also ignores, of necessity, the diets of ordinary Londoners, whose poverty prevented them from developing interesting dishes.
With regard to the recipes themselves, there is something interesting from each century, although the section on the Victorian age is comparatively uninspiring. (The food situation improves significantly in the Edwardian period). Dishes range from the incredibly extravagant— the eccentrically-named Crème Pink 'Un from Romano's requires a pound of prawns and half a bottle of Chablis—to more affordable concoctions such as Geranium Jelly. Measurements are given in both Imperial and metric, and Hope improves on her source material by providing quantities and cooking times. Generally speaking, the emphasis is on luxury recipes that call for large amounts of cream, suet, wine, and so on. It is therefore not an everyday cookbook, but as a source of unusual special dishes, and interesting conversation starters, it is more than satisfactory.--Isabel Taylor