At 16 I was just beginning to find my voice. I began life in Sri Lanka, then moved to Ghana when I was five, then England, so I’d been an immigrant twice over already. I think I understood even when I was five that life didn’t seem to be going well for us Tamils in Sri Lanka, and my parents were moving to Africa with great optimism. I’ve never bought into this idea of Africa as the dark continent where everything goes wrong. For us, Africa is where things started going right. As a younger child in Ghana I was very timid. I arrived in school in England when I was 11 and by 16 I was beginning to be a bit more confident, able to express myself. Thinking I was the kind of person who could stick his hand up and say, yes I can do this, I want to volunteer.
Coming to Britain probably did affect my confidence a bit. I became aware of race in a way I hadn’t before. For example, I was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Portsmouth and we had communal showers. All the kids had tans after the summer and some kid pointed at me and asked why I didn’t have any tan lines. It didn’t take long before some wag said, “I know why he doesn’t have a tan line – because in Bongo Bongo land where he’s from, they run around naked.” And I remember just wishing the plug hole would open up and I could sink into it. I felt very humiliated but privately I decided I would never let race be the thing that defined me. But I wouldn’t claim to be a great victim of racism, partly because when the racist taunts did come along, the people who defended me were white English boys. They were my mates.
Looking back at my 16-year-old self, I wonder how I made it through boarding school. I can remember instances of feeling out of my depth. But for me, unlike many of my classmates, there was no home in England for me to go to, no mum nearby who was cooking dinner for me. It was sink or swim and I decided I would have to swim. And for the most part it was actually a happy time. For me the key thing was care and security and I did feel the Christian Brothers who ran the school gave me that. But as I grew older I was increasingly aware of this tug inside me, of wanting to assimilate into this new culture, and the call of heritage.
God knows how my mum coped with my going away at 11. This was in the days when you had to book a phone call. My mum wrote to me religiously every week and I got round to replying maybe once a month. It was only later, looking back, that I had a strong appreciation of my parents’ love, and the massive sacrifice they made for me. I remember my mother as a nurturer and protector, more so than my father. I remember tugging at her sari when I felt insecure. My father was always very concerned with right and wrong, he was very religious. Later I would think that religion had dominated his life too much and had closed his eyes to certain things.
If you met the teenage me you’d find someone who, on the face of it, was very confident. I was starting to debate. I was starting to discover girls and having a good time at it. I don’t want to sound big-headed but I got this a lot – people were surprised at my facility with words, my accent. From 16 years onwards, people keep saying, ah, but you’re different. Meaning, they had in their heads what Asian boys looked and sounded like, and then there was me. To which I wanted to say, no, I’m exactly the same as those boys would be if they’d been given the opportunities I had.
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In many ways I think I was more confident when I was 16 than I am now, now that I understand my limitations. If I could go back, I’d indulge my intellectual curiosity at university more, I’d study more, and I’d get a better degree. Back then I was more nterested in writing for my university newspaper. I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and it was all about small people being done by big people. I began to understand that giving a voice to people was important. I had no idea what journalism paid, if it would be enough to pay the rent, but I wanted to give a voice to the people.
Gosh, I don’t think my younger self ever imagined he’d be sitting here doing an interview about his new novel [The Burning Land]. Or that I’d become the presenter of the most-watched news programme in Britain. That I’d have a completely lovely, amazing, very beautiful woman to call my wife, and have two sons. When I look at my life I think, bloody hell, it’s been a good one.
When people get cancer they often say why me? [Alagiah was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014; after treatment ended it was announced in 2018 that the cancer had returned.] When I was diagnosed, I thought about that, and the question came back, why not me? Why should I be exempt? In terms of timing I think I was exceptionally lucky. It came at the end of a very good life, and I still hope it isn’t the end. I’m still under treatment. But I remember a year or two after my diagnosis thinking, I wouldn’t give my cancer back. Even though then I was in ‘sort your affairs out’ territory – I had learned so much in those two years, I felt so rich in love and emotion and my sense of where I belonged. I think you are much more acutely aware of so many aspects of your life. I used to go into my local park to play tennis and barely look around. Boom, suddenly I’m in chemo, recovering from one of my five operations, and I’m walking through this park thinking, my goodness, isn’t it beautiful!
I’ve just become a grandad and my granddaughter can’t talk yet, but I often imagine myself in the future, sitting in a garden with her, telling her about life, how much there is to enjoy. Telling her about friendships and family. I’d tell her what I learned from my years as a journalist, covering conflicts and extreme situations – that the human spirit is powerful, and people in incredibly difficult, adverse conditions still find the humanity to be nice to someone else. No matter how bad it gets, there is an awful lot of goodness out there.
If I could go back to any time in my life… I think my years between five and 11, when I was living in Ghana, were hugely important. Those were the years when I had the sense that things were going well for my family. My mum and dad were incredibly happy. I understood, in the way a child would understand it, that there was a new beginning. And I think that has stuck with me. Even now, every day, I’m always looking for a new beginning.
The Burning Land by George Alagiah is out now (Canongate, £14.99)