Sunday, May 29, 2011

' ... ourselves as other see us ...'

Ben Aaronovitch (b. 1964) is a London-born, London-based novelist and screenwriter who has worked on, among other things, Doctor Who. He has a new novel out, Moon Over Soho, featuring the young, mixed-race (yes it's relevant, AS YOU WILL SEE) Detective Constable Peter Grant, the first trainee wizard in the Met for 50 years, for the Second World War wiped most of them out.

Born some time in the late 1980s (oh, shoot me now), DC Grant was introduced to us in Rivers of London, the first novel in this series, and discovered for himself not only that he was capable of doing magic (his current theory is that it has something to do with quantum physics) but that the Met's venerable Thomas Nightingale is also a wizard, and must be his instructor. In the course of these excellent urban fantasies we learn a lot about Ben Aaronovitch's perceptions of the world. Here's what he thinks of Gillard's, and formerly Howard's, Australia. Given that he seems to expect his readers to get the joke, obviously this is a pretty widespread view.

My dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you're born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through Immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train's pulled into Piccadilly Circus they've become a Londoner. He said there were others, some of whom were born within the sound of the Bow Bells, who spend their whole life dreaming of an escape. When they do go, they almost always head for Norfolk, where the skies are big, the land is flat and the demographics are full of creamy white goodness. It is, says my dad, the poor man's alternative to Australia, now that South Africa has gone all multicultural.

Got that?

South Africa.


fmark said...


fifi said...


Casey said...

It seems, by this account, that Australia and South Africa have long been entwined in the British imagination:

"In 1910, the new Union of South Africa was described by Sir Charles
Lucas in the Colonial Office, with the precedent of Australia in mind, as ‘a White Man’s Union’."*

*David Phillips 2003, ‘Towards a “White Man’s Union”’, in John Chesterman and David Phillips
(eds), Selective Democracy: Race, Gender and the Australian Vote (Armadale: Circa), pp. 38-49.

tc said...

If it's any consolation I think the rest of the world is pretty much still ignoring us. That's if the number of times people ask me, 'Australia? Do you speak English?' is anything to go by.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

Can I point out that Peter's dad is making a comment about the reasons that white Britons of his generation emigrated to Australia. A very large number of these expats explicitly gave black immigration into the UK as a major factor in their decision to move to Australia.

Also, while I share many of Peter Grant's views it's a mistake to just assume that I'm so slovenly a writer that there is a one to one correspondence.

One statistic I did hear bandied about during the 80s and 90s was that more black people died in Australian police stations per year than in South African ones. Can't speak to its accuracy though.

South Africa and Australia are not entwined in my imagination. I didn't grow up singing 'I never met a nice Australian/but that's bloody surprising man.'So it could be a lot worse.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

That should be...

I never met a nice Australian
But that's not bloody surprising man!

Never type faster than you can see...

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Wow. Welcome. I'm really, really enjoying Moon Over Soho.

I know, of course, that the writer is not the character, nor did I intend to misrepresent you. But you may not be aware that everyone in Australia from the centre leftwards has been in a more or less ongoing state of despair for nearly 15 years over the policies of various Australian federal governments about (a) indigenous people (as you rightly suggest) and (b) asylum seekers. One long-running conservative government in particular appealed to, brought out and legitimised the xenophobic worst in Australian people and the current, allegedly progressive, government seems to be trying to outdo that one. So those of us who oppose them are all very very sensitive, and DC Grant's dad's remark hit me like a smack upside the head. I was not intending for a minute to suggest that it was inaccurate; rather, I was wincing at its unavoidable implications.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

If it's any consolation I've spent decades face-palming myself over UK government decisions.

I'm glad you're liking Moon Over Soho, my agents are pushing Gollancz to promote the books a bit harder in Australia or possibly even ship some copies over there.

One thing I don't envy you is the price of books - I suspect Australia and NZ will have a very high pick up for eBook readers.

Chin up and remember, they may be your government but they're not you.

Casey said...

Yes, let me too clarify: I didn't mean your personal imagination, I meant an idea which is circulating in the British imagination across a period of time, one which your character articulated. I was thinking of the White Australia Policy, put in place in 1901, which was finally dismantled completely in 1972. Given modern South Africa came into being in 1910, this made me think of why someone in the colonial office would compare the two former colonies as sites of whiteness and the fact both countries enshrined racism into its laws was one, I thought. I was not critiquing the character's father's pov, but rather, kind of agreeing with it really. Certainly Aboriginal Australians would find it unremarkable.

tc said...

Heh - the interwebs, eh? No walls, but all ears.

tc said...

Oh, dear. Does that sound rude? It's not supposed to sound rude.

Stoopid interwebs and its impersonal communications.

The Honourable Husband said...

Are you quite sure he's talking about Gillard and Howard's Australia? Remember, he's quoting his dad. A man likely to pipe the cant of the late fifties and early sixties.

I don't think he's being so harsh on Australia, as he is on those who choose to emigrate. Especially those who chose to leave Britain during the great migration surge which began under Menzies and was moderated under Fraser. The heyday of the ten-pound-pom.

In my observation, many such emigrants from the UK did show a xenophobic streak. Though they immigrated to Australia from elsewhere, my parents certainly shared this point of view.

To such migrants, that Britain was becoming too "multicultural", i.e. no longer white, seemed like a good reason to leave.

Such ageing Norfolk-dwelling dreamers, who lacked the courage to get on a boat but still watch television, would know that South Africa is no longer a nation of white privilege. But they might have missed the memo that Australia sought to remove the same notions of white privilege from official policy.

Dad's comments shed light on the UK he grew up in. How would people of that generation know that anything has changed?

For all of Australia's relative multicultual harmony, from afar it still looks and feels like a white, middle-class suburban place. Just with the odd street full of interesting restaurants.

Neighbours took decades to include characters who didn't fit the sunshiny blond WASP stereotype. The show is set in Melbourne, touted as the third largest Greek city on the planet–yet only recently did a Greek character appear. Australian film, for all its charm, is not full of Harolds or Kumars, is it?

I suspect that Aaronovitch, born perhaps a mere decade after you and me, was actually drawing on the words of his own father and his ilk in this passage.

It causes people of our generation to cringe, because we heard it first-hand from our elders. Would a younger generation of readers see it as a quaint historical reference, deliberately put in the mouth of an older character?

The Honourable Husband said...

Ooops, KG. While I was typing that comment over the course of a couple of interrupted hours, I see that you and the author had workshopped the issue! Should have read it first. Apologies.

Lucy Sussex said...

I reviewed both books favourably,and must have missed that line. I do recall the bit about Norfolk, though.

The verification line is sarpsism, which I imagine a cross between sarcasm and solipcism.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

What was the verification line? I seem to have lost track here.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Ben: the 'word verification' feature or WV for short, also widely known as 'doorbitch', is the wobbly nonsense word that Blogger makes you key in when you leave a comment to prove you're not a robot/spammer. For some reason nobody knows, they are often uncannily appropriate to the subject at hand, as with a discussion about food here some time back when one of the word verifications was 'munchi'.

HH: your comment reinforces something I was already thinking, which is that I have become a lazy blogger. Most of the people who come here are regulars and know my views on, you know, stuff, so I think I have come to require readers to do more reading between the lines than is appropriate for people who know me less well. After Ben left his first comment I read the post again and got a glimpse of how it must have looked to him, when I actually meant something quite different. Memo to self: straighten up and fly right.

That said, I do think Kylie and Neighbours have a very great deal to answer for.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

It never occurred to me you meant the security verification - I get it now.

As to Neighbours and that other one whose name I can't remember thinking about it yes - I suspect plane loads of racist poms who'd never even heard of an official White Australia policy (or that it had been abolished) were lured to your fair shores by the golden locks of Kylie and the unremittingly white portrayal of suburbia. All that plus sunshine and barbecues - who could resist?

I suspect large numbers of non racist poms were also drawn over by the sun and barbecues as well. It's a pity there's no way finding out what the proportions were.

The solution is of course obvious - lure Idris Elba over to play a hard bitten Sydney cop and then sell that back to the rest of the world.

I'd watch that!

Mitzi G Burger said...

I may a hopeless optimist, but just an hour spent at my local 24 hour Asian-Baltic-Slavic-Bangla supermarket indicates that whatever Howard's Australia manouevred at policy level looks mite different on the street. Every time I despair of anything compassionate or progressive emerging from on high, I take a reassuring walk around the neighourhood.

David Irving (no relation) said...

I'm late to the discussion, but I have to agree that the characterisation of Australia is harsh, but fair. Doorbitch is uncern, which is, as usual, unsettling.

The Honourable Husband said...

Ah, Kerryn, I've been a "regular" of yours before there were blogs, you may recall!

Mindy said...

@ Ben - we have discovered the Book Depository in the UK for a lot of our books now. You still get royalties for those sales, right?

Just about everything Kerryn recommends ends up on my bookshelves. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

Writers get paid on the 'circulation figure' which is the number of books that the publisher has shipped out the door. They then retain half for a year just in case all the booksellers send their copies back. So as long as somebody takes them home and puts them on their shelf then I get to keep the money.

Mindy said...

Excellent as soon as my credit card is looking healthier then I'll be buying.

Back on topic, even as a Gen Xer I can see the truth of that statement.

Rhiannon said...

Lured here by a. Kerryn's comments on Grog's Gamut and b. Politically Homeless' blogroll, and have found out about an author I shall be looking out...for.
(I do really hate ending sentences with dangling participles)
Anyway thank you very much for an entertaining and slightly wince-making post and comment thread!

(sucto - is that verification code implying that my comment is sucky? or sucking up? New-form-of-anxiety! Hurrah!)