Everywhere is Somewhere

Everywhere is Somewhere, Naseem Khan: Bluemoose, November 2017

 ‘So when does an art form become ‘English’? Or when does a person become “English”?’

‘It’s a tricky thing, identity.’

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I was very glad to be asked to review this moving, timely and necessary book. Its clarity is impressive; its scope great and to tangle with such questions and statements as those above, is an essential challenge, now more than ever, I think: sometimes painful, but always necessary and, if we would only talk and properly look and listen, it could bring great joy.

I already knew of and admired its author, Naseem Khan, who died in June of this year, not long after she learned that the fine independent press Bluemoose wanted to publish her memoir. I had read her column in ‘The New Statesman’ and had seen her writing in ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Independent (she also wrote for ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine and had been theatre editor of ‘Time Out’ and a journalist for ‘City Limits’). I knew her writing, books, Voices of the Crossing (2000, with Ferdinand Dennis), about the impact that writers from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia have had on Britain and British culture; Asians in Britain (2004), where her text accompanied beautiful photographs by Tim Smith and I am about to read, rather overdue, Being British: The Search for Values That Bind the Nation (2009, edited by Matthew D’Ancona and Gordon Brown), to which she contributed. And I knew about her work, with its passionate but gentle emphasis on diversity in the arts, that she had struggles with the idea of the establishment, had spent much of the 1960s travelling in India and Pakistan, connecting with the Khan roots from her father’s side, that she had been arrested in Pakistan as an Indian spy and that she had been part of the black power scene in Notting Hill, from where she edited the ‘Hustler’ magazine with Darcus Howe and others. Looking at these things, I thought, ‘What a woman.’ And I knew about her work in the latter part of her life when she moved from Hampstead to Hackney and threw herself into community work, aiming — and the exploration of this is one of the most moving parts of Everywhere is Somewhere for me — to bridge a gap between those newly arrived in the East End, the so-called ‘hipsters’, the Muslim families and the old East End families; she became a vital figure on the Boundary Estate. If you had looked at social media a few weeks ago, you might have seen coverage of a wonderful thing. A community event centred upon Arnold Circus, a 19th-century bandstand at the heart of the estate which had become a ruin and which, with her persistence and loving care, has gone on to be an East End landmark. After this, she worked on the Phytology medicinal field, which lies in a corner of the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. That went on to win a Kew Gardens innovation award and a Wellcome Trust grant.

So that is a portion of what she accomplished. She was a true cultural pioneer. In 1976 she wrote a report called ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’. At that time, the lively and growing arts scene in Britain’s ethic communities was not well know or documented. She argued — and I passionately agree with this — that with a more inclusive approach, we would live in a culturally richer place. There’s a line in the book that particularly lingers for me. It is kind; incisive: it is stunning in its essential rightness:

‘The imagination, I think. This is what can bind us. This is what can transform.’

She was, in effect, advocating a community of the imagination. If you read this memoir — and I urge to you — may you feel the same way; test on your own physiognomy the telling pulse of hope and the excitement that goes with it. There were scenes in this book which made me cry because I was so grateful to hear her words: when Naseem Khan is at a meeting discussing plans for inclusion in the arts, she describes an intense happiness in the room: ‘I can feel electricity running along my veins — really feel it, crackling and fizzing. I can hear and feel the emotion in the room. It is a sense of common discovery….I am too proud that I have had a hand in this extraordinary occurrence. Invisible no longer, I think: silent no longer.’

But there is also a righteous anger, a determination. In another meeting, a name is posited for the pioneering report that was to come: ‘We nod: “The Arts Britain Ignores” — it has a ring. We have a name. It’s done…An organisation to push the recommendations further, to make sure that we all stay visible. Keep going.’

Yes. Keep going. That — and the belief in the binding powers of the imagination and of our upholding of diversity in out communities — is what this book is all about for me. ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’ had clearly pointed up the need for greater institutional support to ensure diversity in the arts. She pushed on and later that year — it is all in the book — Naseem founded the Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) and went on to become a co-director of Akademi, the London-based academy for Indian dance, worked on a huge number of local authority cultural plans and also those for museums, including the V&A, and worked on influential studies on parks and urban open space, public libraries and looking at the social impact of the arts. How they foster links between groups; nurture our well-being and the ties that bind. She went on, though with some trepidation, as her memoir shows, to become Head of Diversity at the Arts Council. This is actually the point in time at which the memoir begins, with the author on her way to the job interview. ‘I drag my feet’ she tells us: ‘I am not part of this grand tradition. An interloper’ as she traverses Parliament Square, walking towards the Arts Council of England building.

‘Half my roots are deep in icy wolf-howling Schleswig; the other half in the baked heat of central India. And right now I am on my way to one of the major portals of the Great British tradition.’

She has been persuaded into it by her friend Usha, who tells her that the issue of cultural diversity within the organisation has stalled. ‘If you want to change things…there is only one effective way — and that is through institutions.’ There is a decision to be made here, which I found fascinating and which the author faces with courage: it’s profoundly moving.

‘Memories of my father’s humiliation as he searched for the respect he craved. Resolute black theatre companies exposing racism in rickety halls. All the tenacity needed to unearth quantities of artists, writers, dancers, singers, all from different parts of the world that went into The Arts Britain Ignores…And still so little happened, so little real progress towards the equal society we envisaged.’

She goes to work at The Arts Council of course. Oh, it is painful to read that last bit about her father’s humiliation for this book has made me grapple with issues in my own family history. I hope its author would be glad to hear that. I remember my own Bengali uncle, the man I called Uncle or Kaka, starting again like a junior as the family left the clinic they ran, losing everything, in the second Indo-Pakistan war. We talked often about that, Uncle and I. Who am I to write this review? I’m a white middle class woman, who comes from clawed-up Welsh working class roots. Ah, well that’s rather the point. I need to grapple. I knew about Naseem Khan because one of my greatest influences was this beloved uncle, Dr Jamall, who taught me Urdu and cooking and about the beauty of ghazals, Indian art and also how to eat mangos — I was delighted to see this in the book: you can eat them in the bath, the young Naseem’s father tells her as I was told, and did— and he also knew about Naseem Khan. Because she was important and visible. And all that shot a sharp pain through me, because it’s not long ago we lost him, Kaka.

I have lived in India and travelled widely within it and Pakistan; I’ve been to on-off weddings as young Naseem did; my godmother is a Pakistani Muslim; I lost my parents in my teens. Sometimes I’m not sure who I am. And yet I am exactly sure: I am a hybrid. A questioning, excited hybrid, who looks at all things and tangles with others’ notions —of what the ‘canon’ is in literature or art. I’ve married a man who’s from the state of Georgia and he’s part Cherokee. My Welsh and my Faulkner and my instinctive aping of his often archaic syntax and grammar and his mother’s utter mystification at my elliptical Welsh style where I’ll muddle up pronouns and miss off the subject of a sentence. Oh, I love it. Yes, obviously there can be cultural traditions we might regard and study as we look at the tradition and history of a country, but why can we not draw new things or unacknowledged older things into that; into what we perceive as canon; as mainstream? That is Naseem’s question in the book and it is mine, too. There is room for both. Are we frightened of something? There’s a challenge in this book that is — at least it seems this way to me — particularly pressing in these Brexit days, as we swim in choppy waters and when, reflexively, the lexis of many seems to focus on doom and gloom and on exclusion rather than inclusion. But plurality gives you wings; varied ideas enliven and illuminate. What, I believe, is needed is not a battening down, but an expansion. May this memoir encourage that.

It has certainly made me reflect. On my identity; my cultural precedents.

Everywhere is Somewhere

What does it mean to be British? Testy subject, isn’t it? Painful and destructive, too. As I reflected on the content of Everywhere is Somewhere, on Naseem’s devotion to ‘shared space’, her responses to ‘major social changes as I’ve lived through them’ and to her clear ringing assertion that ‘mixing is so simple’, I put the word out to my friends and family and invited frank response, some of which I knew would nauseate me (sorry, but I speak plainly), but I promised myself that I would not yell or castigate. Because there has to be conversation with those whose views you find abhorrent; has to be, in my view. Because everyone has a story, right? Here — and I must be mindful of the topic of culture because it was as a determined, intelligent and loving defender of the arts that Naseem Khan was known — the greatest confusion remained. British culture, to those who were fearful of its dilution, often meant something terribly vague; a sort of amorphous thing which included red telephone boxes and worries about the purity of the English language being sullied, or the English language not being central enough. That in itself should be a cause for concern because, if you have any secondary education in this country, then your English teacher (I am one) should be explaining to you that the English language is a living breathing thing; that it evolves, bends and twists, borrows words and phrases verbatim. That it did not bound forth with its unsullied grammar and vocabulary from a spring in Arcadia, but is composed of a series of layers, graftings from all the immigrants (sorry; I tend too readily to sarcasm) so we’ve got Norman French and Latin, Anglo Saxon, Greek roots, whole words from Bengali and Hindi — it is in fact a linguistic jamboree. And elsewhere on culture I got ‘Shakespeare being booted off for…oh I don’t know…this PC stuff.’ I did wonder: if we could not define British culture; if we took no particular part in it, then what right had we to question its dilution? Also, is there not room? Why cannot the you and me, just be us? There is nothing that can be said to me that could dissuade me from this: that one of the truest, deepest joys we can feel is to be part of a community, with its various voices, faiths and ideas; with its varying arts: a massive, beautiful plural. And as for identity, bring it on: vast, different, sometimes clashing and dissonant but, with understanding, persistence and humour, all British. As the author of this excellent memoir states:

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I loved this book. It is written with clarity and warmth and, on several occasions, moved me to tears. As I said at the beginning, it felt necessary. I made brief contact with Amelia, Naseem Khan’s daughter on twitter, on the day of the celebrations at Arnold Hill. She had made a speech there and written jubilantly about the day on social media. I wrote to her and told her how much I had loved reading the memoir. I realised afterwards that the Bluemoose team had come from Hebden Bridge to be there, too. You know how Naseem Khan described the electricity in a room full of shared ideas; how I felt a shiver down my spine when I read that? I felt it again looking at the snippets of news that day.

Back to those words of hers: the ones which ring in my ears.

‘So when does an art form become “English”? Or when does a person become “English”‘

‘It’s a tricky thing, identity.’

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I want to say, it is its own thing and the canon can accommodate, flex and mingle; that I agree; that I agree again.

To this observation, rousing, beautiful, ‘When the teacher sweeps the big rubber across the blackboard at school, everything vanishes. There is just the blackboard. Just like that, As if we — and now more than we — were never there. It is not, I think, acceptable any longer’ I want to say, show me how. I agree. How do we carry on this work?

This is a terrific book. A memoir; not a whole life, but stories drawn from a life. If I had a criticism of this book, it was that I wanted to know more — about her being arrested as an Indian spy while in Pakistan, for example. But then, as I said, this is a memoir, not an autobiography — and I am glad for what I have learned; such criticism is hardly justifiable. I enjoyed the modesty of its narrator and that she tells us gently about her domestic situation and the dynamic between her mother and father. I found Naseem’s accounts of her father particularly compelling; of his response to his patients, community, status and discomfort at the new wave of immigrants in their area. I saw this in my own Kaka, my beloved uncle. ‘Look’ he said once as we ate dosa in Newham, me in my early teens, ‘Look at those villagers. Those junglies.’ ‘Uncle, don’t!’ I said. ‘Why not? You think only you bloody whities are allowed to say this sort of thing? You think you have the hegemony on this?’ (I had to look up hegemony later!)

Identity and what we perceive it to be and how we think others impinge on it can cause pain. As you have seen, the book caused me to reflect on aspects of my own life and loss; on tender difficulty and surprise. I felt the text’s plangency on domestic discord, parents, parenting, bereavement, starting again but above all the writer’s passionate belief in the value of the arts; that they – dance, art, poetry and a lively, questing discourse on such things – are a conduit to an understanding of one another, however inchoate that might be to begin with. It’s a book that is plain speaking, but ultimately about hope. And always, this: I want to quote it again:

‘The imagination, I think. This is what can bind us. This is what can transform.’

One more thing; very personal and like a call to action in my ear, so timely it was uncanny. A quotation of George Eliot that Naseem had on her wall for many years, regarded as she begins a fresh start in East London: ‘”It is never too late to be the person you were meant to be.” And that’s what I want.’ Yes. I said to myself, brought up short. Yes. I want that too. And everywhere is somewhere. With its tribulations and its beauty: we need to look closely. So my last words on this book are simply, thank you.

Click here to visit Bluemoose Books for Naseem Khan’s Everywhere is Somewhere.

About the Publisher:

Bluemoose Books is an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

Review by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Books three and four out on submission at the moment. Anna is working on her fifth novel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s