If novels are disguised autobiography it seems inevitable, in retrospect, that my first attempt would be set in the summer of 1981. I was 12 at the time of the royal wedding and had moved with my family — Nigerian father, white working-class English mother and two brothers — from London to rural Norfolk.
The upheaval of the move is bookended, for me, by celebrations in the East End of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 — the year Charles and Diana met — and the royal wedding street party in our cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Swaffham, the traditional market town in Norfolk where we eventually settled.
Seen by a global television audience of 750m, the ceremony on July 29 was described as “the wedding of the century”. The engagement had been announced, to much fanfare, on February 24, when Diana was 19, the image of her in her cobalt-blue skirt suit one of the most striking of my youth.
Equally memorable was, of course, the wedding dress, with its 25ft train, currently on display for the first time in 25 years at Kensington Palace, loaned by her sons as part of the Royal Style in the Making exhibition. The wedding marked “a huge shift in the relationship between public and press and the Royal Family”, according to Professor Kate Williams, a royal historian. It was an event to bring together a nation where, not so far away from the crowds that thronged around St Paul’s, the social fabric was very clearly under strain.
My father came to the UK in the year of Diana’s birth: 1961. This was during the high point of immigration to “the mother country” before the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act curtailed freedom of movement (although I don’t know whether the timing, in my father’s case, was through serendipity or intent).
He met my mum at Gilbey Engineering in Barking, east London, where he was working in the mid-1960s. She had trained at Mile End Hospital and the Royal London, and was visiting the factory as a nurse. Her parents didn’t attend their wedding or speak to the couple for six months after I was born, but were eventually reconciled.
Against this backdrop it makes sense that the summer of 1981 should remain a touchstone for me in trying to navigate the contentions of Britishness. The juxtaposition of the royal wedding and “race riots” in English cities in April and July provide a striking contrast on the subject of belonging.
The Times reported that tourists were being deterred from travelling to the UK because of the unrest. Remarkably — given the extent of the violence — only one person died during the disturbances: David Moore, a disabled man, was killed in Toxteth, Liverpool, when he was hit by a police Land Rover on the day before the wedding.
Brixton: Flames on the Frontline, an extraordinary recent Radio 5 Live podcast available on BBC Sounds, charts the conditions for the “uprisings” (a word preferred by many as a counter to the idea that this was wanton and disorganised violence and destruction). What emerges from the testimony of many of those involved, including police, is that the uprisings were a result of decades of pent-up anger at the way many officers had treated members of the black community.
Everything black people had faced for decades was “raging out of them”, according to Sheldon Thomas, who was 16 at the time of the riots: racism, substandard housing, unemployment, poor education, “being kept down because of the colour of your skin”.
Peter Bleksley, who was sent from Peckham station as a rookie PC to police the riots, is unequivocal as to their cause: “The unscrupulous and unlawful practices of the police in terms of fitting people up, beating people up, stopping and searching people without any justification, led to the riots in Brixton of 1981.”
The disturbances spread to other towns and cities across the country in early July, with both black and white youths involved. And violence erupted again in Brixton on July 15, two weeks before the wedding. In less than a month, nearly 30 towns and cities across England had been hit by riots, with CS gas used for the first time on mainland Britain.
In many ways this would have seemed quite distant for me and my family. We would have witnessed events unfolding on the nightly news from the safety of our own sitting room in the new-build house that came with my mum’s job as a district nurse.
I remember being called a rioter (among other things) at the school where I and my brothers were pretty much the only non-white faces. And we were privileged in so many ways, fortunate enough not to be embroiled directly, yet having to navigate our way through our own set of conflicts and challenges.
It is a striking coincidence that a more recent royal wedding — that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011 — also coincided with riots, in August of that year. These were sparked by the police killing of Mark Duggan, events explored by an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which reopened on July 6.
War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights combines archival material, documentary photography, film and state-of-the art 3D technology to “act as a window to the past and as a mirror for our present-day social climate”. There were, of course, fewer CCTV cameras and no smartphones in the 1980s to capture criminal activity or abuses of power. One striking aspect of the exhibition is its presentation of a new investigation into the killing of Duggan by Forensic Architecture, a research agency that uses technology to investigate state violence and human rights violations using methods that traverse architectural, journalistic and legal fields.
The economic conditions leading to these events are not coincidental: soaring interest rates and inflation caused by the blunders of the incoming Thatcher government or by the bargaining power of the trade unions (depending on your political persuasion) leading, in the early 1980s, to mass unemployment; and austerity in 2011 in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
There are similarities, too, in the government’s economic response with today’s agenda of “levelling up” (the top-down response, perhaps, to an uprising) being reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s decision to appoint Michael Heseltine, then secretary of state for the environment, as minister for Merseyside (to the extent that our current prime minister has even referred to himself as a “Brexity Hezza”).
My first novel was eventually abandoned, although as a work-in-progress it was a runner-up for the 1998 Saga Prize — an early encouragement at a time when black British novels hardly existed. It was an attempt to make sense of the dynamic in my own family and in the wider society. Part of this, in retrospect, involved trying to reconcile the white working-class patriotism of my mother — a royalist — and her side of the family, with the sense that someone of my dual heritage could not straightforwardly be British.
It would have been fascinating to know what my father — who died in 2000 — would have made of the wedding of Harry and Meghan. For me, more than any previous royal wedding, it was captivating. I watched rapt, with my mum, and felt at home in it, at the same time as sensing the quiet conflict in the occasion — something that continues, of course, to reverberate.
Back at the other end of the central London Royal Parks from the ICA, two royal brothers, reunited for only the second time in 16 months, unveiled a statue of their mother on what would have been her 60th birthday. The commissioning of the statue of Diana, Princess of Wales, was announced by William and Harry in 2017, marking the 20th anniversary of their mother’s death. The optics and symbolism of the act of the unveiling have changed markedly since then, both in relation to statuary and in terms of the fraternal relationship. But then they, more than most, will know exactly how it feels to be dragged into a culture war.
Simon Okotie’s novels are published by Salt
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