Mohamed came to Britain aged nine, a refugee from the Somali civil war. Today he is a successful barrister, with an Oxford degree and BBC Radio 4 broadcasting credits. In this bracing book which combines memoir with hard-hitting analysis (and some shocking statistics) he explores what his experience can tell us about social mobility today, arguing that our country is still riven with deep divisions that prevent children from disadvantaged backgrounds from accessing the advantages that are handed to others from birth.
The full story, however, is told through his own experiences and comprehensive data: namely, that he is an anomaly. A difficult childhood, underfunded schooling and services, racial prejudice, class snobbery and other social disadvantages block most people who have had working-class upbringings from top establishment jobs. He draws out various nuances, including the “social and cultural capital” that means bosses hire and promote candidates in their own image; those who have that conveniently indefinable “polish” that a public school and wealthy parents can give.
Even those who do not daily rub up against British class distinctions will find Mohamed’s achievements extraordinary; those well acquainted with the wider themes will find themselves challenged by his conclusions — not least the idea that British society should do more to help refugees integrate. And that those who want to get ahead must, like Eliza, adapt their speech. It would certainly be worth it if, like this writer, they then use their new social status to deliver a few home truths.
His proposed solutions — such as major investment in education and more mentoring — are predictable. As the book veers from addressing society’s structural failings into a self-help manual, there are valuable prescriptions, especially on the importance of language and speech. He laments the reluctance of people within the Brent community he grew up in to consider speaking as he does, using received pronunciation, and criticises the way both ends of the social scale expect him to talk the language of the street.
The book’s most compelling chapter is on mentoring. Mohamed is a proponent of the tough-love approach. He remembers sending one of his interns at his law firm straight home for turning up four minutes late without a pen or paper; the intern then arrived earlier than everyone else for the rest of the week. His advice to prospective mentors is also unconventional and frank: forget telling mentees to “be true to yourself”, it’s “evolve or die”. He urges mentors to temper mentees’ pipe dreams, to cajole and chastise them as appropriate, and to correct poor grammar.
This rags-to-riches tale is related with humility and humour, despite terrible occurrences. He saw his headmaster pummelled by a parent in the playground. At 18 he became homeless. Hustling for space in shelters, he helped his bunkmates to negotiate the system. Clearly, the gift for advocacy came early to Mohamed; before he knew what a barrister was he seemed fated to be one. It’s a chronicle not only of injustices, but also of the motivation, the talent, that transforms lives.