When I was a kid back in the 1960s, the whisper-quiet branch library across the road from the family house was my refuge, my salvation and my inner life-raft, upon which I bobbed across the oceans of time and space, and place and person. After I had devoured The Cat In the Hat, the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons, and all the other books in the Junior section on the library ground floor, I was presented, at the age of eight or nine, with an Adult Library Ticket, and ushered up the stairs to the first floor, where, organised according to the Dewey System, I discovered shelves of fiction and non-fiction, huge books in braille and rows of encyclopaedias.
After I had tasted the lurid satanic stories of Dennis Wheatley and the derring-do yarns of Wilbur Smith, my gaze settled on the classics of Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. And then through the works of Charles Dickens – all of them, apart from Bleak House, which was too monumental a task, even for my greedy young eyes. Dickens especially, revealed to me a world full of injustice, of poverty, of class division and interests, of cruel and unforgiving happenstance, of the lives of the desperate, the lonely, the neglected, and the silenced. Of how English society was, and had always been, intrinsically unfair and not right. Not right at all.
In my early teens I developed a nascent awareness that there were things that could be done about all this – so my mother encouraged me to join Amnesty International, to give money out of my paper-round earnings every month and send letters of support for prisoners of conscience. There was lots of racism swirling around and through my life and that of my siblings, growing up in a mixed-race family in London in the 1960s and 1970s. My father, an Indian Muslim from Trinidad, was permanently passed over for promotion at work. Powerless to do anything about it, he took it out on his wife and family. Much later it came to me that my father, along with many of the Windrush generation, had suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, simply unable to process the unremitting racism and hostility they encountered. It wasn’t an excuse for my dad’s behaviour, but perhaps an explanation for it.