of this admirable and supremely necessary book, it may be said that the one real defect is the title. It does the book an injustice by seeming to limit its scope and blunt its insight. “This country,” said an American Negro leader several decades ago, “doesn’t have a Negro problem—it has a white problem.” Which is ten times truer of Britain in 1961. A country which can’t digest an immigration amounting to half of one per cent of the population, made up of people who resemble the older inhabitants in citizenship, loyalties, language, religion, and all but the most superficial of social habits, and who are distinguished quite simply by the colour of their skin—well, honestly, a country which makes heavy weather of this simple test needs to take a long cool look at itself. The long cool look is what Mrs. Glass, doing a public service, takes. Her book is informative about the West Indians, but it is really searching about Britain.
There are two long chapters, rightly taking up more than half of the book, called “Attitudes” and “Disharmony and Harmony”. Here we find a very close, careful, and penetrating analysis of white attitudes to coloured people. Mrs. Glass has been the only investigator, to my knowledge, to probe the special English brand of ambivalence (her word, and a good one), and to show that it is something more complex than the hypocrisy which, very naturally, it seems to be to those on the receiving end. I’d call it the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. Most of the time, the English are ashamed of being beastly to coloured people; it is by now notorious how nobody, even when voicing the most blatant expressions of prejudice, will admit to being prejudiced. Then, quite suddenly, they are ashamed of being too friendly, of being “soft”. In many respects and for considerable periods, their conduct is entirely decent. Abruptly, they strike out. In a mean street in Paddington, I heard a man justify what is normally deep in the pre-conscious mists: “You’ve got,” he said, “to slap them down now and again, and then you don’t have no trouble.”
This analysis is immediately followed, with impeccable logic, by an account of the Nottingham and North Kensington riots. The logic resides in the fact that this is where Hyde really took over. “I hain’t seen a good lynching in years,” sings Tom Lehrer in his parody of a homesick Dixie ditty; well, this was by our fortunately mild local standards a good lynching. One snapshot stays relentlessly with me: a woman pattering in slippers down the steps of a house, buttoning the mackintosh she’d hastily thrown on, and asking: “Have I missed them? Have they gone?” They were the hooligans from other districts, the socalled Teds, who—as nearly everyone jostled to agree —must be condemned and repudiated but had nothing to do with the rest of us, with the resumed Jekyll. Mrs. Glass will have none of this evasion. She reminds us of the sightseers who trailed round in such numbers as to impede the police (characteristically, the one and only appeal to the public made by the police was for these sightseers to fade away). She recalls the coach trips to see “the terror spots of Nottingham” advertised in Leicester. And she concludes: “The ‘trouble-makers of Notting Hill’ acted out tendencies which were latent in all social strata. They were shouting what others were whispering.”
What none of us have been willing to admit, once our consciences were salved by Mr. Justice Salmon’s noble homily, is that the riots—in so far as they were brought about of set purpose, which of course is only partially the case—were a success. Their purpose was to demonstrate that the trouble which had thus erupted had nothing to do with “prejudice” or injustice, with the lack of real community in North Kensington, with landlordism or bad housing, with curtailed education or the neglect of dead-end youth, but was caused by the behaviour or at least the presence of the newcomers. I must admit that, few though my illusions about Mr. R. A. Butler are, I did expect that he would put in appearance in the district and let it be known that it was a poor show and everyone ought to behave better. After all, he was (and is) Home Secretary, and this was the biggest civil disturbance since that recorded in the first act of Chicken Soup with Barley. But he remained amid the pastoral quiet of Saffron Walden until the next parliamentary question time. Then he made a statement wholly concerned with the curtailing of immigration and the deportation of undesirable Commonwealth migrants. True, he only said that these possibilities must be “studied”, and in the event neither has been pursued. But Mr. Butler put the emphasis exactly where the chaps with the knives and the petrol bottles wanted it.
It would give me great pleasure, which I am sure she would share, if I could say that Mrs. Glass’ book is outdated. The fact, however, is that—in North Kensington, in London, and in the country; in recordable fact and in men’s minds—things are just as they were before that shocking week in 1958. I was going to write “that illuminating week” or “that instructive week”. But I can’t do that either.
I have said less than was due about the evidence of scrupulous research in this book, about the facts marshalled for the first time, about the rounded picture in the opening chapters (the best yet available) of West Indian life over here. None of this should be denigrated; but the primary importance of Mrs. Glass’ book rests in its attitude and in what it can teach. If we refuse to learn, we have now less excuse than ever.