Review of Hashi Mohamed's People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain
Profile Books, 2020
The timing of this important book’s appearance in hardcover, in January of this year, was unfortunate. The various extraordinary events which erupted soon after its publication meant that it did not get as much attention as it deserves, which is a shame, because Mohamed has written one of the most original and inspiring books on this subject in a long time.
The author, who came to England as a nine-year-old child refugee in 1993 during the first stages of the Somali Civil War, then began learning English in earnest and ultimately became a distinguished barrister in planning law, gazes out from the jacket photo with a wryly dogged expression. His book offers a unique perspective absent from most other reflections on disadvantage, class, and aspiration. This combined memoir, policy manual and self-help book is a missive from two very different places and sets of circumstances: Brent, where Mohammed settled as a child, and the summit of professional success from which he now surveys the path behind him.
We might initially imagine that the most astonishing aspect of Mohamed’s achievement is the migration from what (at first glance) seems a remote and mesmerisingly different nomadic, oral tradition-based world to the Inns of Court, an odyssey that makes the reader feel a wave of sympathetic exhaustion, imagining that whole galaxies lie between. However, Mohamed confounds these initial expectations. Beginning with a grandfather who started out as a camel herder but remade himself into an Italian-speaking urban policeman, Mohamed had plenty of go-getting male role models in his family to emulate. (It could be observed —tongue firmly in cheek— that some ancestral traits, such as the rhetorical gifts of his father, “a great linguist and a great speaker, captivating audiences with stories, proverbs and poetry,” and a general familial reputation of being “troublemakers, warriors….said to be independently minded, always ready for battle and vengeance, and, of course, deeply proud,” are not at all incompatible with success in the law). The real problems were the emotional devastation of the war (“All of us were lost in grief, completely adrift…. pick any Somali who arrived in Britain in the 1990s and they’ll tell you a similar tale…Some of us have been lucky enough to strike out beyond the survival zone and thrive. Others continue their gentle creep towards the light; others may never make it that far”), and the vortex which threatened him as a teenager in his deprived London neighbourhood. This environment contrasted with the booming commercial elite that he discovered on a return trip to visit his extended family in Nairobi after his A Levels, an encounter which fired him with ambition and purpose at a crucial juncture when his other career prospect was becoming a master criminal (“These guys getting caught on the street corners were making such elementary mistakes, I used to think”). In the end, Mohamed’s longest journey turns out to be the one that he took from Brent.
The reasons why this struggle was so difficult, “like trying to sprint up a mountain in a hurricane, without a compass and with absolutely no training,” the myriad obstacles which stand in the way of a disadvantaged but extraordinarily talented young person, are investigated exhaustively in this book. These observations are mostly not new, but Mohamed looks at them with fresh eyes, taking nothing for granted and infusing his discussion with a rigorous logic, moral clarity, and indignation at the persistence of injustice that are bracing indeed. (For example, he questions the presumption that a genuine meritocracy is the answer; while this would be less arbitrary than the system currently in place, he cites Michael Young’s warning that it represents another form of class system, cruelly relegating the non-gifted to a despair that they are assumed to have deserved.)
The most disturbing aspect of Mohamed’s analysis of his own success is that it shows how profoundly contingent the success of a brilliant and industrious individual can be. He demonstrates that, but for the intervention of serendipity at various junctures, in particular encounters with a handful of remarkable and generous-minded mentors, his trajectory would have stalled, despite a fierce determination often reminiscent of Ben Cross’s driven Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire. These four figures are interesting and unconventional themselves, including his secondary school teacher Ms Adler, “a sheltering tree around whom we all huddled,” who recognised the threat that school holidays posed to her disadvantaged pupils and kept them occupied with a DIY project, and a BBC editor and two lawyers who were intelligent and imaginative enough to spot Mohamed’s potential. (They contrast amusingly with the barrister who simply could not compute the fact that a Wembley High graduate had just won a moot court competition.)
Coming from a different culture allowed Mohamed to sail past “a lot of internalised norms…about what sort of life is for what sort of person.” The importance of chutzpah is a key theme, as Mohamed details various incidents in which he and relatives went after opportunities that did not yet exist, by doorstepping, sending out motivational applications, and generally behaving in a way that many others would reject as simply too cheeky. Importantly, these manoeuvres were so surprising that they paid off (though Mohamed always refuses to slide into moralistic homilies about boot-strapping). So did his insistence on code-switching and refusal to succumb to other people’s expectations of how an ‘authentic’ working class or Black person ought to sound, which, as he points out, is to unwittingly co-operate in one’s own frustration. Mohamed fiercely defends his right to speak self-taught, refined RP, showing how difficulties simply “melt away” when he takes the phone from a relative struggling to resolve a problem. (Indeed, one of the most fascinating and delightful parts of the book concerns language: how Mohamed’s typical day might begin with listening to his mother’s richly descriptive Somali, continue with archaic legal language in court, go on with corporate-speak at the BBC, and conclude with a burst of Multicultural London English when he meets up with a young relative.)
While Mohamed does explore racial and religious disadvantage, he spends far more time on cultural and social capital. In his account the original sin of English society is class, but he retains a broader perspective and an eye for commonalities with systems of disadvantage in other parts of the world, citing American J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. (Indeed, the parallels between Vance’s and Mohamed’s stories --both were raised by formidable grandmothers and both eventually stormed the bastions of the legal establishment-- are arresting.) None of this is to say that the young Mohamed's liminal refugee status was not a massive challenge to overcome. One of the book’s most moving incidents is his instant identification, at the age of eleven while still waiting for the result of his asylum application, with the visceral powerlessness and disenfranchisement of that summer’s massive hit, Common People by Pulp. He had just realised for the first time what it meant to be stateless upon discovering, after saving up little bits of money all year, that he couldn't go on the day-trip to France with the rest of his class, because he did not have a passport. This revelation made his teacher cry and brought a wave of profound loneliness and hopelessness on the young Mohamed, causing him to become disruptive in secondary school. (Incidentally, educators in particular will benefit from this book’s analysis of behavioural issues and their too-often hidden explanations.)
Despite Mohamed's deadly seriousness of purpose and palpable pride in his achievements (false modesty, he suggests, is a tiresome and hypocritical social convention), he also shows an engaging sense of humour about himself, comically relating how he bumptiously accompanies a young relative to what is vaguely described as “the local chicken shop” but which this reviewer strongly suspects to be Nando’s, to show him and his peer group that he has high expectations for them. “I want Adam and his friends to know that there’s no path that isn’t open to them; no way of being that is reserved for people who aren’t like them.” Throughout, his story shows the importance of familial relationships: Mohamed has clearly brought his numerous relatives with him on his journey, and a following wind of family history continues to fill his sails. When in court, he thinks about his Somali ancestors, including the grandmother who raised him, “sitting in our overcrowded council flat in Wembley….so far away from where she started, spinning a golden web of proverbs, simile and metaphor as she told me the story of our family.”
This book should be read by a wide range of people for different reasons. Young people will benefit from its clear-eyed but never cynical strategy for battling forward; the critique of the way that various institutions fail them should inform policy-makers; and all of us will find its revelations of a little-known culture and remarkable story of determination both moving and inspiring. Here is an unconventional, challenging new voice totally unburdened by cliche. --Isabel Taylor