Vicious Circle (Book review)

Vicious Circle. By WILFRED WOOD and JOHN DOWNING (London, S.P.C.K., 1968). 88 pp. 6s. The Closed Race Relations in Britain Today. By DICK PIXLEY (London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1968). 140 pp. 21s. 

The trouble with a good book (as opposed to a great one) is that it is difficult to review. One can only describe such a work, in the hope that it attracts the readership which it deserves, but seldom gets. 

Vicious Circle, written by two clergymen active in the field of British race relations, is not a text-book, a polemic or a religious tract. It combines instead the virtues of all three without slipping into the excesses of any one of them. It is informative without being dull, indignant but not enraged, and humane without being pietistic. It is written, of course, from a Christian point of view and with a Christian audience in mind, but it is a Christianity of which we can all partake, believer and unbeliever alike. 

The book, the authors point out in their foreword, is ’predominantly concerned with British people of Caribbean antecedents’ (my italics). The phrase is exact and telling, and explains quite clearly why the West Indian’s experience of rejection by the ’mother country’ is much more traumatic than that of the Asian or the African who, after all, is British at one remove. 

The first half of Vicious Circle describes the prevailing myths about coloured people in Britain and shows how they came to be handed down to ’the man in the street’ through decades of propagandist history and racist literature. It is a tale movingly told, with such an admixture of anecdote and history that it might well have been subtitled ’parables for our time’. The effect is to disabuse the reader’s mind of preconceived notions and to set him free to look at the race relations scene ’like it is’. 

This is what the second part of the book sets out to do. Here the authors review the situation in housing, employment, education, etc., with great insight and a sense of deep responsibility. Most of the social ills that are blamed on the coloured people, they show, are a direct result of ’societal pressures’. Despite which, society proceeds to treat coloured groups as inferior, or fails to provide them with ’the help needed’. Inevitably they are caught up in a ’vicious circle of poor housing, poor jobs and poor education’. ’The Church, too, because its leaders in the Caribbean have often helped to prop up the status quo by conservatism, by political apathy, or by apparent inability to distinguish between God and the British Empire, has also become increasingly suspect.’ The trade unions, mass media, the police and local authority services, all come under the careful but charitable scrutiny of the authors, and they are all found wanting. Institutional rather than individual racism, they conclude, is at the heart of the problem. The final chapter is an exhortation to the churches to rethink their role in the racial field. It outlines various methods by which the Church can become involved and effective. It provides an appendix on ’how to contact the person or persons responsible for housing … education’, etc. 

Altogether the book is an excellent introduction to the subject and should be made compulsory reading for all race relations courses. One only regrets that the various references scattered throughout the work were not included in the bibliography at the end–committing the reader, thereby, to a larger view. The Closed Question, on the other hand, is a mere trifle. According to the blurb on the dust-jacket, the book purports to discuss ’all current aspects of race relations’. But what we are in fact given is a series of trite observations, uninformed opinion and anecdotes that illuminate neither the author nor the subject. Mr. Pixley is a free-lance producer to the B.B.C. and a Jamaican. But his book has neither the sensitivity of Vicious Circle nor the knowledge gleaned of black experience. ’Negritude’, says Mr. Pixley, ’like whiteness, has no place for the products of miscegenation, so called: the brown people.’ (And the term ’negritude’ he believes, was coined by Nkrumah!) Violence to the ’Negro American mind’, if we take Mr. Pixley’s word for it, is ’the quick way to all the goodies ….’ The ’Black Power people’ in Britain are described variously as ’fearsome young men all bearing the surname X’, ’television personalities’, or ’anarchists’. But Mr. Pixley fares them well as they ’keep Britain, radically speaking, on its toes ….’ Besides, Mr. Pixley himself would find it ’a little sad to see them disbanded and turned into the work pastures like ordinary people’. If one is able to gather any tangible line of argument from this book, it is that racialism in Britain is not institutional but individual and that all that is required to resolve ’the colour problem’ is a little bit of understanding on both sides, a little more communication, a little willingness to open ’the closed question’. If, for instance, a West Indian family did not pay much attention to keeping their garden neat, ’a word … might have been sufficient to show them the error of their ways, and moved integration one step nearer’. ’My own feeling’, says Mr. Pixley, in daring metaphor (which needs to be quoted at length if one is to derive its full flavour) ’is that it’s rather like a case of B.O…. If one is told about it in a friendly fashion one is inclined to do something to reconcile the situation. If, on the other hand, one eventually discovers the offence only when the whole community is standing off metaphorically throwing stones, one’s own embarrassed bitterness may make one justify one’s right to have B.O. if one likes.’ 

Mr. Pixley concludes with hope for the future if only because ’both sides of the nation have now been appeased by the granting of their respective demands’: control of immigration on the one hand and anti-discriminatory legislation on the other. In addition, the government (which, in Mr. Pixley’s inimitable phraseology, had already risked ’all kinds of nameless horrors to expand its Race Relations Act’) has now ’responded to the magnesium flare of Enoch Powell by wrenching some extra funds for expenditure on educational facilities in a few of the embattled areas’. 

All in all, The Closed Question is a gossipy little book, culled ostensibly from the peripatetic diaries of a free-lance journalist who happened to be a ’coloured immigrant’-a book that should be seldom read and scarcely reviewed.