Kamal Ahmed’s memoir captures a country in transition. Even allowing for the lofty vantage point he looks back from as economics editor of the BBC, his story has a touch of the everyman about it... Yet in other respects Ahmed’s story isn’t all that typical. Like Barack Obama — whose ascent was the original inspiration for this book — he is a double outsider... Ahmed recounts all this with elegance and wry humour. The difference between his stolid TV persona and the slightly wayward character in these pages reminds you of the dictum that writing for TV is like writing with a six-tonne pencil. He comes alive here... The book loses momentum in lengthy digressions where Ahmed becomes a political and psychological theorist... Other chapters, examining structural racism, immigration or the origins of prejudice, tend to go over all too familiar ground... Still, when he pays homage to his parents, you can’t fail to be moved.
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Less gripping are sections on the postwar history of prejudice in the UK, including a slog of a chapter on Enoch Powell. It is clear that Ahmed has done his homework — spoken to an enormous number of people, read endless studies — but the ideas are rather sprayed onto the page pell-mell. Some points are made twice, such as the fact that many non-white people in the UK feel excluded by the term “English”. At times, the writing feels uncomfortably like a TED talk or a speech.
These issues aside, the book is a valuable addition to a growing body of work on what it means to be mixed race in modern Britain. Ahmed’s country has made great strides, and they are painstakingly documented here, but, as he compellingly shows, much remains to be done to ensure all groups thrive, a task that will become more vital than ever as Britain moves into a post-Brexit future.
The writing is full of charm... There is much modesty here, yet publishing a memoir is necessarily an act of arrogance, and a man whose elbows are sharp enough – as well as his talent obvious enough – to be promoted to the editorial director of news surely knows he has risen above the ranks of the ordinary... There are intriguing omissions in the book... It’s his prerogative, but for a work reflecting on race and identity it is perhaps pertinent... It could be that as a journalist and broadcaster he is discomfited by the inaccuracy of memory or absence of facts... Ahmed is a senior figure at the corporation. His ambition is to rise even higher. The exodus of high-profile black executives from the BBC in recent years demonstrates how tricky that path is. While this careful book will no doubt deepen the conversation on race and identity in Britain, it sometimes reads like an audition.
I have learned a great deal over the past year by reading the brilliant likes of Afua Hirsch and Reni Eddo-Lodge on the subject of race, immigration and identity. But there is much I personally recognise in this scrupulously honest and often very funny memoir, by the BBC's economics editor, of growing up mixed-race in 1970s Britain, in the wake of Enoch Powell's incendiary 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech. Half-English, half-Sudanese, Ahmed's childhood was as British as mine in every way - Raleigh bike, Adidas Gazelle trainers and cords, bucket and spade seaside holidays - apart from the fact that he was brown and had a funny name (which he changed to Neil because it was better than being called "camel"). Now he combines candid reflection on the lifelong legacy of regularly being called a "jungle bunny" as a child-and told to go home, even thought he was born just down the road-with political analysis, setting out his passionate belief in the vitality of our multi-ethnic future as a nation.