Henry’s memoir is as kinetic as he is, and he tells his story not only through prose, but also through everything from recipes to graphic-novel sequences, written by Henry and illustrated by the comic-book artist Mark Buckingham. These dramatise aspects of his life that seem to have been hard for him to put into words...
Strangely, he calls his memoir a “biography”, because, he says, it is written “about someone I used to know”. It is a touching, affectionate look at a person whom Henry understands is wholly different from who he is now.
Is it funny? Not really, unless you include the part where Henry remembers that his mother once hit him in the face with a frying pan, thus predating most of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s material by at least 20 years. But it is a vivid and thoughtful account of life in Britain for the Windrush generation and their children, and of the cultural schizophrenia Henry felt in his early life... In Who Am I, Again?, you can feel society changing in the late Seventies: black artists standing up for themselves and doing what they want to do; old-school comedy falling on its velvet-trousered arse. Henry was caught between these worlds, yet he never seems angry, just sad. Winnie’s plan had worked. “Perhaps one of the by-products of the H’Integration Project… was that I was denied teeth, having been told to fit in by any means necessary,” he says.
He did the hard yards in the clubs and the summer specials, and found his way to the top. And it’s probably not a stretch to think that Stormzy headlining Glastonbury in 2019 would probably never have happened, if the likes of Henry hadn’t cleared a path through British TV and entertainment in the 1970s and 1980s. Raw, direct, and straight from the heart, Who Am I Again? also has a reflective quality, as Henry ponders racism, assimilation and how we find a way to belong. He doesn’t answer the question in the title, and suggests that there may be a sequel to come. The next instalment is unlikely to have the same childhood vulnerability that draws in the reader, but the performer in him still wants to leave the audience wanting more.
Henry took safety in not thinking, and he wrestles in the book with the lessons he might have learned, or hopes to impart. Nonetheless, in charting the popularity of the often cruel, cliched comedy of the period, Henry has written a painfully honest account of his ascendancy in British culture. Along the way the memoir offers insights into the one step forwards, two steps backwards evolution of racial enlightenment in the UK, evident in the excrement smeared on his front door in protest against his association with a white woman (Dawn French).
“When you’re being attacked by racist thugs… you can’t just come out with an impression of Kenneth Williams.” This line from Sir Lenny Henry’s first volume of memoir sums up the contents perfectly: the story of a black boy in Seventies Britain, taken away from his home in Dudley by a talent as a mainstream comic entertainer, and never really sure where he fits in.
Is it funny? Not really, unless you include the part where Henry remembers that his mother once hit him in the face with a frying pan, thus predating most of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s material by at least 20 years. But it is a vivid and thoughtful account of life in Britain for the Windrush generation and their children, and of the cultural schizophrenia Henry felt in his early life.
Henry’s instability, his search for a voice of his own, extends to his prose. He can be chatty and colloquial, all banter and bonhomie, recalling teenage high jinks with dizzied abandon. He can also be a bit pompous (“I’ve slowly come to understand the complexities of displacement, loneliness and the need for companionship”) and overly citational (quoting Derek Walcott, Nelson Mandela, CS Lewis). In the final, misguided section of the book he shifts to mentor mode, dispensing advice on microphone technique to would-be comics. He suggests he is readying two more volumes of memoir. That seems excessive. Who Am I Again? is raw, touching and all over the place. He says it’s not an autobiography, but a biography (“because I’m writing about someone I used to know”). He suspects he’s not black enough, not manly enough. Often he feels adrift, lost, in a “duvet of sadness”. The book ends with the question in its title left unanswered.
The memoir, which recounts Henry’s life up to around 1980, is reflective and depressing... Some interesting subjects are left unexplored, though. Expressing admiration for 1960’s Bill Cosby is understandable – and would have been a common emotion for rising comedians back then – but Henry offers no thoughts on the subsequent vile revelations about one of his heroes. The most entertaining aspects of the book, which includes graphic novel-style strips illustrated by Mark Buckingham, are Henry’s touching memories of his upbringing and the potent language he heard as a child.