Mr Commitment

Mike Gayle is a British novelist. He writes books that, if you were feeling snarky, you might call chick-lit that guys can read too. Less snarkily, he writes light contemporary drama. I’ll admit to a small weakness for the genre, at least in its British variant. Although the plots are wildly predictable, the details of melodrama in a separated-by-common-language culture fascinate me. Plus Gayle is good with dialogue and doesn’t go for cheap ploys.

And there’s another thing: Gayle’s black. As are his characters. Or at least they might be, though I had to admit I did not picture them as black at first. He chooses not to make much use of physical description, so it seems clear that he’s at the very least quite aware of the ambiguity he’s creating. On the other hand, I wonder if there aren’t subtler cues–neighborhoods where the characters live, other parts of their background–that would tip off British readers. Anyone else have this experience? Or more broadly, what would tip you off that a London-based character was black, without being a physical description or too much of a stereotype?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture and tagged , by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

3 thoughts on “Mr Commitment

  1. Interesting challenge, Doug.

    I’ve always suspected that when we Brits watch a Hollywood movie, a TV soap, or even something like The Rockford Files, we’re missing all sorts of cues that would be apparent to Americans, namely the subtle and not so subtle indicators of social class. I don’t even know if this is correct – perhaps social class in US entertainment is presented purely in terms of wealth? Well, I doubt that, but …. what DOES the particular loudness of check on that jacket signify?

    Anyway, any British cultural production will be replete with such indicators, a schema of subtle gradations particular to different milieus and not necessarily fully discernible even to Brits from an altogether different part of the social spectrum. Whether it’s Trainspotting, Monty Python or A Dance to the Music of Time the artefact will display a panoply of caste marks as complex, overlapping, variously hierarchised and clearly readable to those in the know as the ones that adorn Hindu foreheads.

    The insertion of blacks into this grid provides an index of integration. Are they foreigners, and therefore both transparent and blind? Or have they been fully assimilated enough to reproduce the process and internalise the importance of, as it were, giving or deliberately refusing to give, the precise inclination of the head required in a given social context, the art that so evades westerners in Japan.

    Notwithstanding creations like Rising Damp’s Philip ( a posh TV comedy black, indistinguishable from a posh white, much to the irritation of his racist but socially inferior landlord) UK Blacks will generally provoke less of this kind of twitchiness from other Brits, and will themselves glide peacefully through the turbulence. It’s that silence in the midst of cacophony that I’d look for in a black character –Sine Nobile, or ‘respectability’ does not arise if your skin colour proclaims that your ancestors were slaves and that your status now rests entirely on your own achievement.

    I look forward to browsing through Gayle’s work next time I’m in a bookshop, if only to see if I’m talking complete bollocks.

  2. All of the characters are born-and-bred British people, so no foreigners and no clearly recent immigrants. Also no names of clearly South Asian origin. These are absences that, to me, say that Gayle is aiming at portraying his people as EveryBrit (insofar as there is such a thing). There’s some sort of personal or domestic problem at the heart of each book, and that’s what he wants to concentrate on. There’s no huge ambition to remake the form of the novel, or capture a moment in the life of the UK, or anything big like that, which is just fine by me. (Not everyone should be, say, Jonathan Franzen, and after all, I’ve bought but not read one of JF’s, while I’ve bought, read and enjoyed MG’s whole run.)

    There are probably markers in the London neighborhoods that are mentioned, but I presume that young black couples go to Ikea as readily as young non-black couples, and have unexpected domestic squabbles on a weekend afternoon as a result, too. One of the newer books, Brand New Friend, involves moving from London to a northern city (Manchester, iirc, setting much less important than characters) and is more specific about neighborhoods there, too.

    On the other hand, if his message is you can’t tell whether my characters are white or black, that’s implicitly a big statement about race relations in Britain. One that I’d confirm from my admittedly miniscule experience but one that has some obvious limits, too.

    Thanks for giving it some thought, John, and hope you enjoy the books. Good at what they are.

  3. It is not a big statement on race relations in Britain. Only on the place blacks have. Sub continenters are in a whole different situation

Comments are closed.