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Mike Phillips Biography

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Nationality: Guyanese-British. Born: Guyana (immigrated to Britain in 1956). Education: Attended school in Islington; studied for a degree, and later for a postgraduate degree, at other schools. Career: Worked variously in factories, garages, and at a post office; established a hostel for homeless black youths, Notting Hill, London; community activist, Manchester and Birmingham, England; journalist, 1970s—; teacher, University of Westminster. Lives in London, England. Awards: Silver Dagger award (Crime Writers' Association.)

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Blood Rights. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.

The Late Candidate. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Point of Darkness: A Sam Dean Mystery. London, Michael Joseph, 1994; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

An Image to Die For. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

The Dancing Face. New York, HarperCollins, 1997.

A Shadow of Myself. New York, HarperCollins, 2000.

Short Stories

Smell of the Coast and Other Stories. London, Akira Press, 1987.

Other

Notting Hill in the Sixties (text), photography by Charlie Phillips. London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1991.

Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (with TrevorPhillips). London, HarperCollins, 1998.

* * *

Mike Phillips writes from a consciously black British perspective while seeking to avoid the usual conventions of African and African-American writing. There is discrimination but no history of slavery on plantations or apartheid; there is a history of immigrants, outsiders who survive in and become part of a new society. Whether writing about black Britons or others, such as the Russians and Germans and a Ghanaian in A Shadow of Myself, Phillips is concerned with migrants, people who cross boundaries and take chances whether out of necessity, curiosity, or in search of a better life. Change, excitement, survival, and memory are major themes in his writing.

Although working within such popular commercial literary forms as the crime story and international thriller, Phillips is a serious writer with an analytical view of the world who sees people morally and sociologically; they are products of society but still have free will and make choices. Life consists of change and excitement, but disappoints our desires; it is necessary to learn from the past while moving on. Phillips has published two documentary studies, the mostly pictorial and nostalgic Notting Hill in the Sixties and Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, both social histories of the West Indian community in England and its progress from postwar immigrants to a major influence in creating a multi-racial England.

Smell of the Coast and Other Stories consists of short stories mostly set outside England. In "The Smell of the Coast" the narrator is in East Africa and assumes that, as the people are black and the landscape is similar to the Caribbean, he is at home. He soon is actually and culturally lost. He does not understand the sexual mores of urbanized East African women, nor the usual social behavior of East Indians in Africa, and he does not understand Swahili. East Africa is one of many places where characters deceive themselves about black people in other societies before the character accepts being English. Phillips sets several stories in the United States which at first seems a paradise for black people who can rise to the top and become millionaires in sports and entertainment, and who are sought by prestigious colleges and who hold university professorships. It is a land of opportunities for West Indians, but the children of the immigrants lack the ambition of their parents, often live in black ghettos, and turn rapidly to drugs and crime. This is the other side of Black America in contrast to the millionaires, black separatism, and affirmative action.

Mostly set in the immigrant and ethnic areas of New York City, with a concluding chase to California and Arizona, Point of Darkness, one of his Sam Dean novels, contrasts the sense of community still found in black England with the everyone-for-oneself rat race of the United States where, despite talk of black brotherhood, it is dog eat dog. The United States is more corrupt, violent, and socially fragmented than England. For someone with Sam's moral sense and need to belong, England is home. Sam Dean is a black British freelance journalist who in the course of doing some minor job becomes aware of a larger mystery which he voluntarily risks his life to solve. Although he might seem an existentialist hero living by his own rules in a chaotic changing world, Sam is part of a community with social ties and he needs others to save him and solve his problems, although others can never be depended on and are themselves changing.

Blood Rights is the first of the Sam Dean novels. Sam, from Guyana, has been in England since his teens and is known for his newspaper columns and television appearances. He is divorced and has a long-term affair with Sophie, an Argentine photographer. They live separately and regard themselves as "free" to carry on other affairs provided that they engage in "safe" sex. Sam can speak and act tough and is good with his fists but dislikes violence. In the novels there is usually someone who does the violent dirty work for him. Sam is aware of the history of neighborhoods, of the problems faced by black youths—especially by young men—and how people are treated as stereotypes. He wants his son to have a knowledge of black British history, but his son has been raised by his white middle-class mother and, has little ability to comprehend the immigrant culture that Sam knows, with its history of poverty and racial hurts. Sam remembers a time when blacks in England always smiled at each other as they felt they were among white strangers.

People ignore how difficult it is for young black males to climb out of an environment of poverty and crime. The exploitation of and rejection by the British of their black past is represented in Blood Rights by Roy Akimbola Baker, the unacknowledged son of Greville Baker, a wealthy powerful Tory MP tipped to be in the next Cabinet.

When an angry Roy learns the truth about his background, and goes to London to confront Greville, he tussles with the police, is jailed, and wants revenge. This soon gets out of hand when Roy's friend Winston turns out to be a vicious murderer. Roy helps Sam rescue Virginia, the daughter of Greville Baker, who has become a captive of Winston. The novel might be said to be an allegory of white and black Britain; history has made them part of a large extended family which will continue to hurt itself until it reaches some mutual recognition and accommodation.

Racism in Phillips's novels has social and psychological causes as well as economic. The Late Candidate concerns those in the running for nomination as the Labour Party's candidate for election to Parliament in a traditional Labour Party borough. The formerly white Labour Party controlled Local Council now consists of Indians, blacks, gays, lesbians, Marxists, and other interest groups. An older Irish group is still powerful but no longer dominates. Aston Edwards, a black member of the local borough council is a doubly late candidate as he was officially in the running and was killed, the police think by a younger black man who was having an affair with Aston's white wife. Walter Davis, a black spokesman for the borough Labour Party, turns out to be another late candidate as he is hoping to replace the dead Aston Edwards by gaining the support of the working class Irish group led by the Parker family. Davis knows about an investigation Aston was conducting before his death into the ways Parker's construction company had corrupted the Council, gaining a monopoly on contracts. When Walter is killed the police suspect a black man who has organized and runs a local youth center, a meeting place for petty drug dealing. Sam fears that the police will jump at the chance to build a case against the two black men, as love triangles and drug dealing fit black stereotypes, rather than look for the real culprits. Each lead concludes with Sam deciding that he does not have a candidate for the murderer of Aston until the one person who seems an unlikely suspect turns out to be the double murderer because of racial hatred which disguises his own insecurity and failures.

Life consists of false appearances, misleading representations, and fantasies of desire. It is also unfair. In An Image to Die For Sam's son talks of going to America as the white students do not see him as a person with similar private interests to their own; they stereotype him as a black victim only interested in racial matters. Sophie who has been photographing Arab women takes on their perspective and covers herself like an Arab woman; she talks about the safety it offers her from prying male eyes. By contrast Sarah, with whom Sam had an affair many years ago, asks him to work with his old friend Wyndham, who runs an independent TV film company and to whom she is married. Sam sleeps with her and hopes to protect her from the killer, but at the novel's conclusion Sarah turns out to be herself a killer who put the various events and murders in motion. She calmly tells Sam that even if he reports her to the police nothing can be proven and she won't go to prison, whereas he is the one likely to be in trouble. He calls the police anyway.

The Dancing Face returns to the question of black British identity. Most African-Americans and black Britons are racially mixed, brown rather than black, and know little about what Africa is really like. Gus is a brown Englishman whose West Indian father taught him that all blacks are Africans. He steals a famous ancient mask to dramatize the moral right of Africa to reparations. In contrast to Gus's idealism concerning Africa and bitterness towards white England, there is Dr. Okigbo, a vicious, powerful, corrupt businessman and politician who escaped from Nigeria after being imprisoned by a corrupt, violent, tyrannical military government. Okigbo financed the stealing of the mask, which he wants to use to negotiate his return to power. At the conclusion, Osman, a Nigerian studying in England, destroys the work of art and says, "I turned my back on history." Osman served in the Nigerian army and saw opponents of the government massacred; he knows it is time to forget dreams of an ideal Africa as home, better to begin again in England.

Bruce King

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