Foreigners: Three English Lives – Caryl Phillips (2007) – Vintage

Foreigners tells the stories of three black men, all of whom lived, for the majority of their lives, in England. Belonging, identity and race are the key themes of the book, and that all three men’s lives end in tragedy can be linked in some part to all three being looked upon as outsiders by the communities around them.

Of these three men, one I had heard of: Francis Barber. Barber was servant to the famous Dr Samuel Johnson and lived with him in eighteenth-century London. At a time when slavery was still in force, Barber found a great patron in Johnson and lived a free life under his protection. This chapter begins with the funeral of Dr Johnson, its narrator a friend of Johnson’s who ends up travelling to Westminster Abbey with Francis Barber. Years later, this friend travels up to Lichfield to find Barber and return an item that was left to him by Dr Johnson. He knows that Barber married a white woman and has several children, that he sought Lichfield as a new home due to it being the birthplace of his beloved Dr Johnson, but on arrival he finds that all is not well.

The second tale is of mixed race boxer Randolph Turpin, Britain’s first black world champion boxer. It seems unbelievable that I had never heard of him, and yet in 1951 he beat Sugar Ray Robinson at Earls Court to claim his title. Turpin was born in Leamington Spa and lived there all of his life when not travelling due to his profession. Despite his great success, again this is not a story that ends well.

Finally is the awful story of David Oluwale, a Nigerian who stowed away on a ship to Britain as a teenager and ended up in Leeds in 1949. Twenty years later he was found dead in the River Aire, two policemen charged with his manslaughter. This section is told through several voices, locals who knew him as a cocky young man, broken by a system that had him constantly arrested for trumped up charges, moved into a mental institution where he was drugged to make him more compliant, ending up on the streets of Leeds where he was continuously beaten up by a group of racist coppers who made a sport of it.

It is a bleak read at times but each man’s life is drawn in such a way as to show their flaws, their mistakes, while also calling the attitudes of the wider society into question. Yes, Randy Turpin was a bully, a man who relied on his fists far too often when not in the ring, but also he often found that the only way to defend himself. Yes, David should not have chatted back to the police every time he was questioned, but also should that give them the right to arrest him, to beat him while in their custody? These are real men with real complexities to their personalities, and Phillips does a good job of asking questions around their fates.


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