We don't need to erase the individual to tackle systems of hate
We’re a lot wiser about race these days, says The Treatment author Michael Nath. But being more woke doesn’t mean we should get hung up on labels and forget the individual
by: Michael Nath
18 Feb 2020
When it comes to racism, I know what I’m talking about, me.*
That’s enough to make you lock yourself in your car. Let’s start again.
I’ve heard early readers say my novel The Treatment is about racism, its source a notorious race crime of the 1990s. People talk about racism, race, diversity and identity much more than they used to; they talk appropriately. This is a good thing; though when you take stock, you may doubt whether it’s an absolute good for the novel.
What if it blocks the view of other issues?
Or forgets that valuable being, the ‘individual’?
Or makes readers feel that they’re wrong to pay attention to the novel’s variety?
Let me consider the first two points here.
A novelist does have the faculty of imagining other experience, and loving individuality. So we make characters
In a failed book, I wrote about an agitated young man. He was homeless. His name was William Cook. I also wrote about a lawyer called Hanley. William flogged used travelcards to make a few bob (this was before Oyster). Lawyer Hanley befriended William; it didn’t turn out well for the young man.
Like other novels, The Treatment comes in part from the graveyard. Rummaging among failed books, the writer hears a voice: You haven’t done with me yet, pal! Away goes the writer with a bag of bones. Try again.
This time, Hanley has dark skin (his mother was Spanish). He was called ‘p**i,’ ‘n*****’ and ‘c**n’ at school in the ’70s/early ’80s. He was called ‘Gandhi’, since he wore glasses. He got the treatment. That’s how it was in those days. Believe me. Hanley remembers the stabbing of Gurdip Singh Chaggar by white youths (Southall, 1976). If younger readers look up what a) John Kingsley Read (NF) said about that murder at a BNP meeting; and b) Judge Neil McKinnon, acquitting Kingsley Read of incitement to racial hatred, said in court, they may be shocked; we’ve come some way since then. Being woke now does not in itself make you expert in the past. Not your fault. We’re only here once. But do listen to Hanley, and compare what you hear to the way it is now. Might help you judge the present.
Lawyer Hanley became a practical anti-racist.
When he encounters William Cook at the Tube (period: mid-’90s), and hears William’s spectacular ranting, Hanley’s on the case: witness to a notorious race murder, William has fled in fear to the other side of London. Hanley persuades William to testify at a public inquiry. William agrees. He trusts Hanley. And Víctor Hanley is a good man. But the world runs rings around good men.
William gets the treatment on the way to the inquiry, from a pair of cops who don’t want him testifying. No one cares two hoots about William’s fate, apart from Hanley – and so he should. Did Hanley sacrifice William?
My point: this book has room for a young homeless man, and his unforgettable voice, as well as white on black racism.
It has room for other versions of the treatment. The rent-boy, Donna Juan, and Jewish school teacher, Lolly Morris, both get it.
My second point was that too much talk of race and identity obscures the individual.
The novelist is a maker, a maker of particulars – if the novelist is skilful, these particulars may gather into something very substantial. DH Lawrence said that the novelist presents us with more of the living human than other experts; the novelist certainly presents us with more of that whole thing, the individual, than can possibly be embodied by the word identity.
Say a young writer asks me if it is alright to include a woman of a certain faith identity in her novel. Why must she ask that? What she’s making is a novel, not policy. Here are some of the identities I’ve been writing: Gay. Homeless. Jewish. Working-class Northern female (d’you assume she’s white?). Greek-Cypriot. Arabic. Foul-mouthed chain-smoking elderly woman (d’you assume she’s working class?). Anglo-Hispanic. Black British. East Anglian lower-middle class. White thug (class?). I am not them. Definition of a novelist: someone who isn’t virtually anyone, and hasn’t lived their experiences either; but does have the faculty of imagining other experience, and loving individuality. So we make characters.
The present argument about identity and appropriation is crude (which is why it has mob power). It’s based in an essentialising attitude that arts and cultural studies academics spent a generation trying to eradicate. Why’s it coming back in? And, it conceives of people only as representatives of groups, or bearers of structures (another name for this is Stalinism).
If any of the readers of this article have ever been identified as BAME, did they feel patronised, or disregarded as individuals? I would.
In a recent article, journalist David Aaronovitch recommended “colour blindness”. He gave the example of the casting in the film David Copperfield. This is another way ahead.
*My mother is Welsh, my father was Indian; I grew up in South Wales; then the East Midlands, at a time when racism was relatively uninhibited.
The Treatment by Michael Nath is published on March 5 (Quercus, £20)