Black History Month: Caryl Phillips and finding a place to belong

As part of Black History Month, we have dug into our archives to find out about the experiences of Caryl Phillips — the Booker prize-nominated novelist, essayist and playwright who was both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Literature. Phillips grew up in Leeds as a first-generation West-Indian migrant, brought to England when he was just four months old.

Through a series of digitised interviews housed within the South Bank Show Production Archive held in our Special Collections, Phillips ruminates about his experiences growing up on the Whinmoor Estate, and ultimately feeling like a part of Britain in the terraces at Elland Road.

Growing up as the only black family on the estate was challenging, Caryl Phillips explains when he revisited the Whinmoor Estate with the South Bank Show in 2003:

“This was the 60s, most people who came from working class parts of Leeds were not used to seeing black people around. Most black people in Leeds congregated in very specific areas. Leeds is very geographically defined, it’s not multicultural. It posits itself as a multicultural city but in actuality, there are very dense pockets of people of Pakistani origin, Indian origin, and West Indian origin.

“We were viewed with a certain degree of curiosity and certain degree of hostility — people were not used to having to mix in that way and we felt it. We felt it every day.

“At the time that I lived here, I didn’t feel part of a community — I never felt I belonged here”

Caryl Phillips stands on the street where he grew up. South Bank Show Production Archive, 23/01/2003, 14:41 © ITV Archive, ITV Studios Ltd

A pervading theme of Caryl Phillips’ novels is the notion of home and the duality of migrants who balance the concepts of where they have come from with where they are currently. He speaks about his own experiences growing up as a first generation migrant as part of a culture that didn’t see any point “harkening back to what it was like ‘back home’”:

“There wasn’t anything on the television, there weren’t any novels and there were no books that I could read or films that I could watch that would help me understand what it meant to grow up in a country with such a powerful sense of identity like Britain but know that a part of you came from somewhere else. There was nothing to help me understand how you can mix and match and marry that.”

He explains that he eventually found his own kind of belonging — in the stands of Elland Road of all places. Phillips started attending Leeds United games when he was just five — “in short pants” as he describes it. As his parents had no interest in football, his babysitter would take him to matches.

While racist chanting and violence were commonplace in the terraces, Caryl Phillips found his way through and found a place he could feel like a part of British culture:

“Coming to Elland Road was like going to church for me. It was a weekly or biweekly ritual, something you spend your whole week working towards. It was a way of feeling that you belonged to a larger community — that you were attached to England in a quite primary way.

“The ritual of walking to the ground, buying the program, making sure you had a scarf, the arriving early, the Bovril — the lousy Bovril but Bovril nonetheless. All very working class, very English traditions were quickly appropriated by me and became very much my ritual.

“It was a huge difference to the life my parents experienced, it was huge difference between anything in the Caribbean — it was quintessentially England. It marked me off as somebody who was not only different to my parents but also had one foot in the British camp. If anyone wanted to question my identity — there was no doubt in my own mind because I was participating.“

We hold a number of Caryl Phillips novels and collected essays within the Library, you can find these using Library Search.

The South Bank Show Production Archive is held in Special Collections. You can view the collection at the Library website. Digitised content can be viewed via Special Collections by staff and students while on campus or via the virtual desktop.

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