Transcript: In conversation with Les Back
Luke de Noronha: Hello everyone, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at UCL. I’m delighted today to be in conversation with Les Back, someone whose work has inspired and guided me now for many years. Les is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, the University of London, where he’s been teaching and working for a very long time, I think. I’m not sure how long. I think since the early ‘90s?
Les Back: Yes, that’s right, Luke. My daughter was three months old when I came back to Goldsmiths and she’s 27 now.
Luke: Amazing. Les has published many important books and papers, but to name a few of those books, New Ethnicities and Urban Culture from the mid-'90s; Out of Whiteness that he published with Vron Ware; The Art of Listening, one of my favourite books; Academic Diary; Migrant City just a year or two ago; and written more widely about music, football and culture. I’d really recommend for people who haven’t read Les’ work to do that now. There’s some beautiful writing and really important arguments that should be shared widely.
Les: Thank you for that, Luke. I appreciate that. That means a lot to me.
Luke: Of course. I really wanted to speak to Les for the podcast because as we build the Centre, concerned as we are with the study of racism and racialisation and being located here in London, I couldn’t think of a better person to speak with and learn from actually than you, Les. Les has been thinking, writing and teaching about racism and multi-culture, particularly in his beloved London for many years. So, despite hailing from south of the river, I know that we at the Centre are going to have a lot to gain from friendship and engagement with Les, so thanks so much for coming on the podcast.
Les: It’s a pleasure. I’m looking forward to it.
Luke: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is a concept that’s been very helpful for me that I read first in your early work, which is the concept of the 'metropolitan paradox'. I wondered if maybe you could explain a bit what this concept means to you, and then, perhaps the slightly harder question, how you think the contours of the metropolitan paradox are maybe different now to when you were first writing about the metropolitan paradox.
Les: It was an idea that came to me quite early on in my research career. I first coined it in the book that you mentioned New Ethnicities and Urban Culture, which was really my PhD project. My road into academic writing - and I sort of chuckle to myself to say 'the profession', because I don’t feel like I’m very professional in this world, this particular world of the university - was a strange one, in that I finished my undergraduate degree in 1984, a very, very tough time in terms of just opportunities and what to do next. I didn’t think about going on and doing a PhD, or even postgraduate work, I basically was scratching around trying to earn enough money to survive and live an independent life and it was easier then, I think, for young people. But I found myself doing a little bit of academic teaching, mainly because of my PhD supervisor, a wonderful woman called Patricia Caplan, but I was earning most of my money as a youth worker in youth clubs. So, I was working in a historic youth club in New Cross called the Moonshot Youth Club, and another one close to Bermondsey but right by the river, right on the river, called the Pepys Estate. These were two youth clubs that were within a mile of each other, but it was almost like two different universes, partly because of the politics and the discriminatory practices of local government housing departments in allocating properties there. So one was thought to be, when it was built in the '60s, a cut above in terms of council housing actually, and became a predominantly white, working class bastion, and it was like that when I was working there. Then the other club, which was right by New Cross Station, a few hundred metres from where the New Cross fire had taken place in 1981; that was the year that I came to live in New Cross and I walked past the ruin, the sort of burnt-out scar that was the house at 439 New Cross Road, where the fire had happened and 13 young Black people, who were more or less exactly my age, were killed and a 14th died two years later. So, that place was like a kind of community hub where sound system dance was played, where there was this extraordinary kind of- I think of it as a sort of renaissance of Black London at that time. It was an extraordinary time and I feel very privileged to have been a part of that. So, to go back to your question about the metropolitan paradox, within sometimes 100 metres or even within a mile at a stretch, you could find both the kind of realisation of a new possibility for what London could be and what multicultural London could be, at the same time it was physically proximate with the damage of racism, both popular and institutional. A street away from where Moonshot Youth Club took place, there were the famous raids around the time of the muggings, the moral panic in the 1970s. Stop and search was rife and just blatant, the racism of the police was just completely unselfconscious and brutal and evident. I witnessed that first-hand with Black friends on the street. So on the one hand, there were the places in cities like London, and areas like New Cross and Deptford, could be the place where a new possibility could open and they were also the place where the enactments of racism, both popular and institutional, and the legacy of empire, was being replayed. Those two things happening in exactly the same place. They were cheek-by-jowl. And I always thought that there was something paradoxical about that. It wasn’t a straightforward struggle where one set of those forces would win out. It wasn’t like a contradiction. It was something else, something much more troubling and difficult to think about, was how these twin forces, those twin possibilities of what London and Britain could be were locked in this paradoxical relation.
Luke: And I suppose the follow up question being how you feel that paradox feels different; this is a big question about London, I guess, how it feels different to then, because you’re talking, I think, about 30 years ago.
Luke: What would you say some of the key differences are now?
Les: I think the characterisation of London as a kind of paradoxical urban space remains true but the nature of that paradox has shifted and has changed. The big shifts, the ones that you know well and that are have documented in your work, is the move from a moment where London is really a kind of postcolonial city in many respects; the conduits of movement and the passages of movement, the template of that was set through the relationship between the metropolitan centre and the hinterlands of empire. So, it was the citizen migrants of the Caribbean who came to this part of London, and also other patterns of migration that were internal to the UK; you can only make sense of that through understanding the relationship between that and the imperial past; it set the coordinates of those movements. That has completely been transformed. That relationship has been broken. That’s produced all kinds of other sorts of contradictions and hypocrisies, the Windrush experience and the scandal being the most extreme one. But that feeling of the breaking or the cutting of those Commonwealth ties is very palpable, I think. And London as a sort of space of difference has also been transformed. The presence and the contribution of African migrant communities, largely from West Africa in this corner of London, has transformed both the sort of popular vernacular of the city and as well has added other dimensions to the political alignments of urban life and the complexities of multiculturalism really. So I think, on the one hand, that paradox is shifting and I think one of the things I became very keenly aware of, or wanting to think about, is how, in that situation, it isn’t simply that racism stands still either - it adapts. So, the centres of power can take on a kind of multicultural gloss or rhetoric, at the same time as institutionalising hard forms of power geometries of exclusion. Other aspects of how the metropolitan paradox is different now is the way in which questions of the border and the immigration line take on a different quality, so the way in which difference is ranked and hierarchies are created. I mean, the great line from Frantz Fanon I think is that racism doesn’t exclude absolutely - it sifts, it orders; that was the colonial reality, and the postcolonial form of that process has some of the echoes of those alignments of power; the 'good immigrant' as opposed to the unwanted. All those kinds of things, I think, are the shifting dimensions of that paradoxical combination of a different kind of future and the legacy of the past. The legacy of the past, which I think the defining aspect of that is the legacy of empire and the legacy of racism as a scavenger ideology that constantly shifts, mutates and adapts to new realities.
Luke: That’s really helpful and I’ve been thinking for a while about the relationship between the legal classification of non-members in different ways and the exclusion from political membership and cultures of racism. I suppose I was also interested because, when I said beloved London, I kind of mean that you really live in this place. And I was thinking about the kind of geographies of street racism and how they’ve changed in some of the places that you were thinking about. I imagine they’ve undergone, exactly with the waves of migration you describe, some real changes and I wonder how street racism in those places has transformed, or has lessened, or has increased - yeah, I’m not sure.
Les: No, definitely. That’s something I really think about a lot. You know this is true already, but your listeners won’t. I am of this place. It is my project, it’s been my life, it is what I do every day. I feel both the investments of that and the responsibilities of that, and we can talk a little bit about that if you’d like to, because I think it comes back to, well, what is the relationship between ideas, thinking, understanding and public engagement - not something to put on in a promotion form, but something you do every day. I’m a sort of inveterate walker, I take people out for walks - and students but not just students - but I do it all the time. It’s one of the things I really like to do, to think on the move, to think on your feet, because the city always challenges you to think differently as you move through it, I think, as well as, at the same time, an opportunity to make explicit and remarkable those things that are just ignored or passed over. I think about that a lot because of the way in which the ghost of that street racism is very much present in this landscape, of New Cross particularly. It was a place where the National Front lot marched in 1977, notoriously a march against muggers and mugging; when the National Front, some 800 strong, paraded through Lewisham, there was a street brawl and even amongst the leadership, it was commented upon of the National Front that the back of their movement was broken in that particular form that day. So those kinds of things can’t happen in the same way that they once did, and also the kinds of brutal forms of racism that were the daily reality of my peers of colour, a daily reality - harassment from racists in the community and from the police. There was tremendous bravery in that generation of people. It was violent, in-your-face brutal forms of attack, physical. And the span of that 30 years and the changes that have happened through physical confrontation and basically a physical verbal presence that is insisted upon, and is defiant, and without any qualification, transforms and mutes those expressions of racism. It’s one of the things I thought was really important to try and document that somehow, or to give it the kind of seriousness that it deserves, the way in which racism is confronted and parodied in everyday life in a very straightforward way actually. But does that mean racism disappears? No, it doesn’t. I think racism, as a form of power and a practice of power, has this kind of scavenger like quality - it moves. So, it might recede from the street in its most brutal form, but it doesn’t disappear. There’s a piece of National Front graffiti that’s just on a street, I cycle past it every day. In 1977 it was painted in bold white colours, stridently, in an attempt to claim this place, and over that period of 30 years, that piece of graffiti has been left to fade and it’s almost completely invisible now. That manifestation of racism has faded but it doesn’t mean that racism disappeared. That was part of the paradoxical challenging reality that I was trying to get to through that idea of the metropolitan paradox.
Luke: And I suppose it’s with sitting with that complexity and confusion sometimes, actually thinking as you were talking about it - I don’t know New Cross so well but I’ve been there a few times – and I went there a few years ago to meet with someone who was under the threat of deportation, and who was deported actually to Jamaica, and who’d been here since he was four and like you, very much of that place and from New Cross. I think he felt at home there and I don’t think he was experiencing necessarily - certainly police harassment - but not kind of white, far-right racist harassment on the streets. But I was in conversation - and this was around the time of the Referendum - with him and his friend, and his friend was saying, 'I’m going to vote Leave' basically because - and this is a young working class Black British guy - kind of saying, because there’s not enough jobs for me, there's not enough, and because I’m having a hard time- a kind of typical argument about migration. The other person, who is facing deportation, was trying to explain that the European- the human rights were what was giving him a shot at this appeal and all of this. So, this really complicated conversation. I suppose that was my little journey into New Cross, but something that I think’s important about the way in which some of these questions have shifted in really complex and difficult ways around the politics of race and migration.
Les: Well, you see, Luke, I think if you really pay attention, if you’re really listening, then you can’t hide from those complexities. Now, I think it is important to think in a complex way, but to say things are complex and just say that is to say nothing. It’s the nature of the complexity that I think I’ve always been trying to find a repertoire of ideas to name, or to diagnose, or to interpret. So, the contingency of the insider status of the young, Black Londoner who is saying, 'I’m going to vote Leave because I want to protect my stake really in this society', I think that’s a kind of Fanonian echo. It’s precisely the metaphorical ladder of the hierarchy of belonging, 'I’m a little bit higher up on the ladder and I want to keep my firm footing on this and hold on tight'. So that is not the product of a failure of that person or of that person being politically and ideologically, in the common vernacular, 'a sell-out'. That’s an inadequate way of understanding the structural processes through which racism works. So it works in a vernacular everyday way, the conversation on the street, and it absolutely works in an institutionalised way, in terms of the statuses that are conferred onto people and, in a way, how they’re defined through the immigration bureaucracy itself.
Luke: Exactly. And I think the kinds of arguments you make about the metropolitan paradox I found them especially useful when engaging with some of the sociological literature on everyday multi-culture, or super-diversity, which try and look at what they term, unquestioningly, kind of 'diverse' places, as though diversity is the question rather than racism. But I feel like, yes, the concept of metropolitan paradox really helps us look at some of this complexity and have racism front and centre, rather than just trying to describe, as you say, these complex kaleidoscopic configurations of difference, which some sociologists seem especially fascinated by, and you’ve criticised that line of inquiry really well. That’s one of the reasons I found the metropolitan paradox so helpful actually.
Les: I appreciate that, Luke. I hope it’s helpful. That’s the whole idea. I think that’s why we write, not just to be helpful in a benign way, but to find ways to make sense of things that are legible to others and help them and help those who are really thinking, 'yeah, that rings true to me'. Actually all this stuff about how cool diversity is, what about the experience of getting a text from the Home Office saying, 'do you have leave to remain', which has happened routinely as the mechanisms of immigration control have become very 21st century and digitised. I just think that if you’re not paying attention to that too, then you’re not paying attention well enough. I was really formed in a moment where you could not but be confronted by that. As I was saying to you, I walked past the house where those 13 young Black kids were killed, who were exactly the same- some of them were, unnervingly, almost exactly the same age as me, every day. I constantly go back to that moment in my mind because it is the moment that changed my life, in the sense that that was the moment that I realised that the racist jokes that might be told over the kitchen table at home, or the comedians who were performing within a mile of where those events happened, with these racist routines - I mean at the Montague Arms, I remember a record being made by a comedian called Jimmy Jones, who performed there every Saturday night, and they were just open racist diatribes; racism as a big joke. But as a young person in that moment, and knowing people - that was the other thing that I think was so important in that moment - knowing somebody who knew somebody who had lost people who were 15, 16, 17, 18. You couldn’t but be brought into a deep, profound and life changing confrontation with where violence of that nature can be made. And we still don’t know the circumstances that led to that fire, but we know absolutely sure without any shadow of a doubt, that in terms of the way in which the wider white society thought about those young people, those lives did not matter. Those lives were not commented upon, they were not cared for. It was a political struggle to make people care and recognise the humanity of those young people.
Luke: I mean it’s been 40 years, so we’re kind of reflecting on this 40 years after and, of course, it’s hard not to think about the ways in which the politics of Grenfell have played out. And that brings us a little bit to the thing I wanted to come to last because it’s your recent writing on 'hope', actually. And I kind of wanted to end on hope, predictably, because that’s how you end these difficult conversations, I think. You’ve written a wonderful paper, which was based on your talk to the Geography Society which is on hope, and you write that 'by fostering a different kind of attentiveness to the world, we find a resource in the service of hope'. And you then develop this argument through two examples drawn from contemporary London life, namely the Silent Walks at Grenfell Tower in West London, which I know you were going to regularly, and a particular community arts project in Bellingham, closer to home to you in South East London. Maybe you could talk a little bit about why you decided for that talk and for that paper to think and write about hope and why these two examples.
Les: Yeah, I’d be delighted to do that. You’re going to tax me a little bit because I follow my curiosities, I always have. I mean they’ve been a good guide to me and they are often of a piece with each other. There’s reasons why I’m drawn to particular things. I think I’ve always - not self-consciously, but probably just in the practice of doing research and writing and scholarship - felt it’s important to be attentive to that which is emergent, things that are not fully formed yet, or of the counterintuitive. I found a language for it later, but I think I’ve been doing it all along. Things that are surprising; and in those surprising, emergent moments I think there are possibilities. It’s there in New Ethnicities and Urban Culture which, as I said, was researched in the mid-1980s and published in the mid-1990s. So, I think that attention to the counterintuitive, or the surprising, or the things that don’t fit within the kind of political certainties of any given time, is something that has been like a reflex for me, or at least as something that I’ve found compelling. Now, at the time of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, or the manufactured tragedy of Grenfell Tower, it's exactly the same period that at Goldsmiths we had curated an exhibition of Vron Ware’s photographs that documented the Black People’s Day of Action which happened three months after the fire, which is a historic, political demonstration where the portraits of those 13 young Black people were carried by the demonstrators; it was almost exclusively a Black demonstration, Black hosted, Black led; and the parallels were chilling, in the way that the manufactured nature of that tragedy echoed the plight and the paradoxes of power and multi-culture in contemporary London, it felt like to me. The structural forces but also the changing community dynamics and profiles, I suppose, of those people who are dependent on public housing in our time. So that was part of the resonance, the connection across time. And I’ve always thought actually that we have to find a language to argue - and this is something I learned from Paul Gilroy, who is your colleague and my dear friend actually - we have to find a language to not only describe what we’re against, we have to try and find a language to describe what we are for, what we want to argue for and not to be always in that negation moment, or reflex. I had written a book called The Art of Listening, which you kindly mentioned, which was a bit of a turning point for me. It was a kind of putting of the cards on the table for me, in terms of what I think is the value in what we do, collectively. And that book ends with a sort of gesture towards hope, as we often need actually; and it’s a bit like our conversation today, the gesture towards hope. But hope not in a kind of unknowing or in a way that doesn’t recognise the damage and the looming forces that push down, or limit, or contain, or stifle hope, actually. So, the piece is called Hope's Work. And I had, for a long time, been thinking about a sequel to The Art of Listening, which would be called An Ethnography of Hope. I never wrote that book. I think Obama did for me actually. Obama tainted hope for me, he put me off course. Like many people, I was enchanted by the possibility of a figure like him transforming American politics, but wiser heads prevailed, in that political systems don’t prevail because they’ve got a more appealing literary figurehead. The political system prevails because of the nature and power of the alignments of the system itself. So, it sent me off track. So, writing this paper was a sort of return to some of those things and I had stumbled across these ideas that maybe, looking for hope- where do we look for hope? My answer is quite simple, that we have to look for hope and be attentive to hope through training, an appreciation and an openness to the world of possibilities that are emerging. Going to those Silent Walks that often began close to Grenfell Tower, circled round that corner of West London and came back to the Tower, the power of that silence was really transformative. Others have commented on it too, but I was really deeply, deeply, deeply moved by going to those events. They did seem to me to be a kind of incredibly powerful demonstration and representation and demand for accountability through silence. And the fact that the silence of those people who assembled there stilled the city; you would feel it, it was such an unnerving experience, I know you’ve experienced it first-hand yourself. But as the silent demonstration walked through the city, it felt like the city was made still and made to pay attention. And you would see that in people who would stand and wait for the demonstration to pass, buses that would stop, the traffic that would stop. It was an extraordinary thing and, in a way, it became an example of exactly the kind of empirical attention to hope that I wanted to argue for. So, hope isn’t guaranteed, hope is emergent. We need to be attentive to the hopeful possibilities that are alive when people walk together silently and express a defiant pushback against the brutalities of the metropolitan paradox. That is a brutally divided world, the world in which Grenfell Tower is located, the streets that surround it and the huge social inequalities that are manifested there. So that’s where my argument came from. I wanted to actually be a bit playful; you might not know this but the Royal Geographical Society is right in the heart of London’s privilege and Grenfell Tower is just a few miles away – it might as well be in a different universe – and I wanted to bring some of that experience into the room of the Royal Geographical Society. The other example, which was a bit more playful, which will be more obvious to you, was to bring another story from urban life, south east of the river, from an extraordinary community arts project that has been developed by Phoenix Community Housing. They raised £4 million to turn a pub that was a bastion of racism into a community hub where music, teaching and performance is possible, and where it provides a different kind of community resource in an area that has seen tremendous hard times. These were two illustrations of that attentiveness to those things that were emerging, but also to think carefully and critically about both the possibilities and the limitations of those things. On that estate in Bellingham, there’s a street named after Antonio Gramsci, so there’s a street in South East London called Gramsci Way, SE6. If your listeners don’t believe me, just use Google Maps and you’ll find your way there. The story of that strange curiosity is told in the article, but Gramsci is a famous characterisation - 'optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect' - it’s actually a borrowed one, it’s something he got from someone else. It’s a citation actually. It goes back to where you started in our conversation, the importance of paying equal attention to the damaging forces and being vigilantly critical of those, the pessimism of the intellect, because pessimistically those forces survive, they reproduce, they change, they shift shape, they realign, they hold. At the same time, optimism of the will, which is to pay attention to the world and the remarkable things that are so often unremarked upon. The things that are counterintuitive that in some moments and in some contexts become intuitive reflexes; they become simply the rhythm of life itself.
Luke: I think that’s such a wonderful - and I’m glad we did turn to hope - way to close out the conversation, Les. I want to thank you so much for being in conversation with me. Despite having read your work for many years, and thought about and used it, I’ve learnt so much from our conversation and I really look forward to further engagements with the Centre. And I’m really glad that you spoke about 40 years ago, and both the fire and the Black People’s Day of Action, because we will be trying to mark that, so I’m sure you’ll be along.
Les: I think it’s really important. The world is a better place for the fact that the Centre exists at all and that you’re trying to do the work that you’re doing. To my mind, what you’re doing is part of hope’s work. That’s what it means. That’s what it is. It’s undeniable, it cannot be taken away, it’s done, it’s achieved; and I think it’s important to honour that and to appreciate it.
Luke: Thank you so much and we’ll speak soon. Thanks everyone.