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Friday, 4 April 2008

"Catapulted into privilege"

With Patrick French's biography of V.S. Naipaul about to hit the bookshop shelves, the literary pages of the British press are going into a Vidia-frenzy. More about that shortly. Meanwhile, a few days ago in the UK Guardian Chris Arnot profiled another celebrated West Indian-British writer, the Sabga-prize-winning David Dabydeen:

Dabydeen's own progress is a story that would test the imagination of any artist or writer. He was born in a one-roomed house on a sugar plantation in 1955, and won a scholarship to Queen's College, Georgetown, at the age of 10. "We had a solid colonial education modelled on the public-school system over here," he recalls. "That included Latin and strict discipline. We even had a tuckshop." So it must have come as quite a shock when he followed in his father's footsteps and arrived in south London in 1969....

Those were particularly tough times for black and Asian immigrants to the UK. Enoch Powell's 1968 Rivers of Blood speech had stirred up already rampant racism. "When Powell died, 30 years later, I remember feeling quite sad," Dabydeen says mischievously. "Were it not for him, I wouldn't have had the drive to achieve academically. I watched him wipe the floor with opponents in television studios. There was no Paul Boateng or Trevor Phillips at the time to match Powell's erudition and eloquence. I remember thinking 'I'd better get to Oxford or Cambridge'."...

He likens the culture shock of moving to Selwyn College from the Ernest Bevin comprehensive, Balham, to being "catapulted into privilege". And he disliked it intensely, apart from the library. "I used to have the odd surreptitious cigarette in there," he admits. "You couldn't do it now and I shouldn't have done it then. I could have burnt the place down." He shakes his head in admonishment.

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