As February is Black History Month in North America, I was very pleased to get hold of a copy of Black and British, which I had been wanting to read for ages. I also got Once upon a Wardrobe as I enjoyed the author’s previous book.
Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga
This is an excellent overview of how African people became entangled in the history of Britain. The earliest Black people in Britain lived there during the Roman occupation. There were Black Tudors. Then, during the age of slavery and empire, Black people were taken to Britain by slaveholders, and after the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1802, and then slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, Black people went to Britain to work and live, as they had every right to do. The book deals with this history, and the campaigns to abolish the slave trade, and then slavery.
One criticism I have of this section is that it goes into a fair amount of detail about the reception in Britain of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but fails to mention that it drew very heavily upon (some might say plagiarized) the memoirs of Josiah Henson, founder of the Dawn Settlement in Ontario, formerly enslaved person, and conductor on the Underground Railroad. Perhaps this could be added to a future edition.
The first half of the 20th century is covered really well, but there’s less about the second half of the 20th century (and no mention of the Mangrove Nine).
The new chapter (added recently) dealing with the Hostile Environment and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 is excellent. It omits to mention that the people of Bristol had been campaigning for decades to get rid of the Colston statue, though. And that the Home Office deliberately destroyed boxes and boxes of immigration records relating to the Windrush generation.
I think the book excellently achieves its main aim, though, which is to show how and why Black people arrived in Britain, and that they have a right to be there.
Once upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan Henry
I loved the characters in this book — Megs, George, and Padraig, and the way that Jack and Warnie are drawn. Although I’ve read two biographies of Lewis and numerous books about the Inklings, a fictional approach to his life seems like a great way to give a different perspective on it. Patti Callahan Henry’s writing is very good and easy to read (despite the use of present tense). She notices little details that bring things to life.
HOWEVER: if you’re going to write a book about England, PLEASE, for the love of all that’s holy, get an English person to proofread it. Lots of people proofread the book, but it seems none of them were English. We don’t say that we are sick, we say that we are ill. There are numerous Americanisms in the text (e.g. math instead of maths, sidewalk instead of pavement, sick instead of ill, I hear you, stoop instead of doorstep, the omission of “and” in phrases where an English person would include it but an American would not). I think the decision to use 1940s slang very sparingly was a good decision (there’s one “jolly” and one “by Jove”, which was probably enough). If you must use American English in your book about England, don’t write it in the first person. It’s very jarring for an English person to read.
That said, some of the scenes in the book were absolutely magical and I still loved it in spite of this giant flaw. So I only knocked off one star from my Goodreads rating. I considered knocking off another one for writing it in the present tense, which always annoys me, but I added it back on for the subtle delivery of the message of the book, which was about the magic of stories and connections between people; and the mystery at the heart of everything which cannot be grasped, only glimpsed.