Why I’m now scared of book clubs

And why I loved this one

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

‘Hi Ian!’ the email began. ‘We are a group of mostly females who meet regularly in London to review really good reads. We are currently reading The Dead Yard, and were wondering if you would like to join us as our honorary guest while we fire you (gently) with questions about your book.’ The email concluded: ‘You will be well fed and thoroughly entertained! Kind regards, Phoebe.’

Very nice, but I sensed a danger. My book on Jamaica, The Dead Yard, has earned me a lot of enemies. For good or ill, it exposes a dark side of island life at odds with the ‘paradise’ of travel brochures. Bookshops in Jamaica had declined to stock the book when it came out in 2011, owing to its alleged ‘sensitive content’. While I had not anticipated any legal problems (in fact, there were none), Jamaica has a long-entrenched culture of litigation. The island’s Libel and Slander Act of 1851 (amended by the Defamation Act of 1961) had been used in an attempt to prosecute me.

Since then, I have received a total of three death threats, as well as a slew of Amazon reviews so hysterical in tone (one by the British novelist Guy Kennaway) that Amazon was forced to take them down. And now this ‘mostly female’ book club. Was it a honey trap? In trepidation I accepted Phoebe’s invitation, and made my way by tube to Balham, as instructed. At the station I climbed the stairs to the exit, and waited. An elderly white woman on the pavement opposite was looking inquiringly up and down the street. ‘Are you Phoebe?’ I asked her. ‘No,’ she said, ‘but I wish I was.’ Meaning? Minutes passed before my phone rang. ‘Hi Ian! I’m in the blue Audi to your left.’

Phoebe turned out to be a beautiful black woman in a leopard-print dress. She had been born in south London, she explained, of Jamaican parents. Her sister Alisha was to host the book club evening. As the Audi picked up speed I felt a stab of apprehension. If this was a trap, it was an alluringly honeyed one. We got out of the car and made our way to Alisha’s house, situated in a smart-looking estate on the Balham outskirts. Inside, a fragrance of air-freshener hung in the corridor and beyond that an aroma of salt fish and ackee told me that West Indian treats had been prepared. In a spacious room upstairs the book club was seated in a semicircle, like a tribunal. The women were immaculately turned out in red and black cocktail dresses, elegant high-heeled shoes and ‘tall’ (straightened) hair. They were all black, strikingly good-looking and, it proved, good-humoured.

The meeting was to be relayed via Skype to the Jamaican capital of Kingston, where a third sister, Yasmin, lived with her husband Rodney, a Jamaican-born banker. (It was Rodney who had recommended my book to the club.) On the laptop’s screen Rodney appeared friendly and relaxed. ‘Greetings from Kingston, Ian,’ he said; his wife, a blurred presence at his side, waved to me and I waved back.

A waiter in a tight black uniform hovered at my elbow with a jugful of Pimms. (‘No Red Stripe beer, I’m afraid,’ Phoebe said. ‘We’re ladies!’) The waiter was white: Caucasian hands doing menial work — the tables had turned.

A woman in her early forties began: ‘Ian, you seem to portray Jamaica as a land of lost hope. The takeaway from The Dead Yard is rather negative. The title itself is negative. How would you feel if I’d written a book on Britain called The Mausoleum?’

‘All I can say is, I never set out to tell the truth about Jamaica, only the truth as I perceived it. That’s what a writer does, isn’t it?’

‘All right. Cool.’ (I sensed I had got off lightly.)

Dainties of jerk chicken and avocado were passed round while the discussion turned to the subject of what it means to be British in Britain today.

‘I was born in Britain,’ said Angelique, ‘but I consider myself to be a Jamaican to the bone.’ The Jamaican people, she went on, with their gift for humour and generosity, their creativity, ‘are my people’.

‘Oh come off it, Angelique! You’re as British as the rest of us!’ said Alisha, the host.

‘Define British,’ I said, bolder now.

‘British? Well… Just don’t call us immigrants,’ the woman to my right said, adding: ‘The trouble is, when the British speak about immigrants they do not usually mean white people. They mean black people.’

Older Jamaicans resident in Britain are often annoyed that Poles and other recent Caucasian immigrants are allowed to travel and work freely here. ‘They can’t sing a word of the British national anthem, can they? They’re immigrants, that’s why.’ Perhaps the Poles remind them too painfully of what they used to be. Bad-mouthing the next wave of immigrants is how earlier waves seek to prove their assimilation.

Yasmin said to me from Kingston: ‘Ian, your book is beautifully written, but it’s a bit sarcastic at times, and Jamaicans don’t do sarcasm.’

‘Actually,’ another member cut in, ‘I thought The Dead Yard was written by a black man. God, he’s brave, I thought. Then I Googled him — oh, right, he’s white.’

‘What difference does it make if he’s black or white?’ asked Alisha.

‘It makes a world of difference!’ said Angelique.

That much was true. During slavery, planter snobberies in Jamaica were inevitably shaped by colour. In order to bolster their social status, the plantocracy evolved an elaborate ranking of skin beginning with their white eminence at the top and descending to the ‘saltwater Negro’ at the bottom. Consequences of this colour code have survived today in Jamaica.

At the evening’s end, I announced: ‘You’ve been asking me all the questions. Now let me ask you one. Why did you invite me?’

‘We were curious!’ the book club said.

So that was it. I went out into the Balham night with a spring in my step. Honey trap? I don’t think so.

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  • Damaris Tighe

    Gradations of status according to skin tone: too silly for words, never understood it.

    • channel.fog

      But like so many gradations. Accent, for example.

    • Gwangi

      Yes, but we must be careful not to blame nasty white dead men for such a system. I can assure you that gradations of skin colour corresponding to status are ancient and exist in Africa and India and elsewhere. It has ever been thus.

      Maybe it’s just because white-skinned women are just prettier and more youthful-looking? To say it comes from racism or even the African slave trade as run by white Europeans (as opposed to the one that had existed for thousands of years in Africa and Asia) is utter piffle – just a projection of the obsession of our age and need to blame nasty white men for everything.
      Certainly, they have a status amongst men with dark skins and always have done (just read up on the Barbary pirates and their slave raids on the European coast to steal women and children for hareems – maybe why some in north Africa and Arabia have blue eyes…).

      I used to teach an evening class to EFL students. One had a baby and handed round a photo. The most common comment from the black African women was ‘lovely white skin’.

      • Damaris Tighe

        All true & of course there’s the example of modern India, where skin whitening creams are big business.

        • Picquet

          That fashion seems to be dying. Here in Botswana there aren’t any in the pharmacies, while ten years ago in Nairobi they were big selling items.

      • Liz

        Gwangi that’s called hegemony.

  • Gwangi

    A ‘mostly female’ book club?

    What, like the local ‘mostly Muslim’ mosque? Or that ‘mostly Jewish’ bar mitzvah?

    Women seem to feel the need to make reading novels a communal experience; men read fiction in happy solitude (except when given the chance the get time out of their cells in prison to attend a man book club…)

    • Shenandoah

      Not all of them. Women that want to be ‘up’ on the latest movies are also the sort that want to be up on the latest fiction (mainly). I’m not interested in being up on the latest anything and I’ve never been to a book club.

    • Liz

      That must be why men review books in national magazines and talk about them in the comments sections.

    • Kitty MLB

      I would worry about attending a ‘woman only bookclub’
      Just in case they discuss chick lit which I deplore.
      Told Louise Mensch about it here.She wasn’t impressed.
      I generally like listening to classical music whilst reading
      so its usually solitary or in the presence of quiet people.

  • Alonzo Ales

    Even when democratically selected, a government committed not to principles, but to reacting to circumstances, will be forced to submit to others’ principles and to take actions it never before considered.

  • Swanky

    Hi Ian. I’m reading your book and have been drawn in by the fascinating descriptions of people living a life very unlike my own (though I skipped some of the slavery stuff — I know it happened — not guilty — nor were those innocent visitors to the grand house that were trying to enjoy their holiday).

    Interested in reviews of books I’m reading. The Kirkus one I thought was overall OK but had to dig at you in a way that I thought was unfair. I don’t have a Facebook account so I was unable to kick back at it. I’ll do so here. I wrote (after the anonymous reviewer grudgingly approved of your book despite its ‘inherent bias’:

    ‘This itself is a biased review: the comment about the author’s ‘Anglo schoolmasterish disapproval’ is particularly thoughtless. What was the author supposed to do: condone the murder of Jamaicans by other Jamaicans? Condone the world-record illiteracy and lack of education and opportunity? The fear and irrationality of daily life? Really!’

  • Poz Woz

    The Book Club – By one of the quoted attendees!

    I belong to a bookclub and the one of the books we have read
    was The Dead Yard by Ian Thomson, to the surprise of all who attended the bookclub meeting the author agreed to come along and answer questions.

    To set the scene a few ladies predominately of
    African-Caribbean heritage have been meeting for about a year and have read
    books such as, Half a Yellow Sun, Lean In and Mighty Be Our Powers. The
    bookclub has a few rules you have to wear a skirt, you have to read the book,
    we take turns in hosting at our homes and the host usually provides drinks and
    nibbles. At a previous session we read Mighty Be Our Powers, the daughter of a
    former president of Liberia attended and gave a real and personal insight into
    the political climate of that country.

    Saturday the 14th June 2014 found Ian Thomson in
    the hot seat, hot because The Dead Yard is a particular view of Jamaica that
    deliberately veers away from the normal vista of that little island of being
    carefree and idyllic, instead it looks at the life of Jamaicans at home and
    abroad, in a darker more negative manner, through a series of recounted
    interviews (visits) interweaved with historical facts and cultural vernaculars
    which make the book to those who know Jamaica well feel very comfortable, yet
    he takes us to places some far off the beaten track. The book is a veritable
    travel guide and describes old plantations and encounters with establishment
    families that could only have been facilitated by either extraordinary luck or
    fabulous social connections.

    For a fuller critique of the book read the article published
    by the New York Times:

    My article is not going to minute questions and answers as
    they happened on the night but I am going to try and expand on why and how the
    premise of the book is so offensive to Jamaicans and to those of us who love

    The title is rude –
    likening Jamaica to a place in mourning, or a place where the deceased
    reside – it suggests that there is no hope for Jamaica. Ian’s response was
    to say that he wanted to debunk the easy going reputation of Jamaica, but
    all he seems to have done is cast himself as controversial without having
    any substance for being so.

    The man himself was
    comfortable enough to come to our bookclub confident that we would
    probably be very restrained and polite – and we were. He seemed ready for
    most of the questions we posed, the book was first published in 2009, not
    available in Jamaica because on the families who he had offended were
    influential enough to restrict this until quite recently. Ian having been
    subjected to the sort of public school education usually reserved for
    politicians and bankers rather seems to be biting the hand that fed him.
    The school that he went to, the wealth accumulated by his pre-descendants
    were no doubt acquired by, built upon and made wealthy on the backs of
    slavery, cotton and sugar, which he now feels happy to classify in the
    worst of negative terms.

    It is clear that the
    hospitality extended during the commissioning of the book was repaid with
    treachery, he quoted conversations verbatim and used the full names of the
    people whom he was referring to – I was quick to remind Ian that this wa
    an off the record meeting the content of which cannot be used for any sort
    of journalism by him.

    The places visited and the
    people encountered seemed to be faithfully told objectively, what really
    galled with me were the subjective additions usually at the end of a
    sentence or chapter which were always negative leaving a tangible bitter
    taste in my mouth.

    His assertion during the
    bookclub that if he had known of the response to his book he wouldn’t have
    written it in this way seemed like platitudes – never having published a
    book, I don’t know the full process but I am sure that the process
    includes proof reading and editing, both and either of those processes
    would have brought up questions on the slant of most of the content of the
    book – hindsight is always in 20/20 vision.

    Having discussed this with
    my sister over the phone, she remarked that if there hadn’t been so many
    people prepared to provide him with material enough to write a book, he
    couldn’t have written what he did as he did, instead we should reflect on
    ourselves and try to ensure that we aren’t so negative about each other –
    it a valid point of view I suppose.

    On the whole I didn’t enjoy the negative connotations of the
    book, but it was well researched, very well written and his love of music has a
    struggle but glints through. I would not have ever chosen this book but for
    belonging to a club, it challenged me and my ideals in ways that has surprised
    me, we are all biased towards one another and I for one will be rather more
    guarded in expressing my feelings quite so candidly just in case a researcher
    is listening and planning to write a book. Just in case you’re stuck for an
    idea Ian – A Great Masoleum, How the City of London Benefited from Slavery, you
    could start by eaves dropping in the bars of around St Pauls and the social
    circuit where your peers hang out, get yourself invited to a cocktail party or two
    hosted by your contemporaries, write a blog/article/ or book which puts them in
    the worst possible light using their full names, places and verbatim quotes and
    see if your writing career doesn’t become a ‘Dead Yard’.