14th October, 2018
Review by Isabella Garcia Foster
‘There is a sound from my childhood that I remember – and then, at some point, I stopped hearing it.’
This was the sound that a young schoolboy woke up to every weekday on the south banks of the Tyne: the last, rumbling cries of a dying industry echoing, sending ripples out across the river – and, to this day, through the minds of many. This was not the only ghost to follow David Olusoga from his native North-East.
The physical and mental scars of racial abuse from his days at the local comprehensive were yet another reminder that being black and British meant being ‘made to feel like an invasive species’. There was nothing that he wanted more than to leave the city that was preparing him for work which no longer existed; workshops were closing their doors whilst his class was being shown the tricks of the trade in industrial draughtsmanship. He and his friends, he said, had identified their anthem from a very early age: ‘We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do’, by local group The Animals.
And yet, roughly three decades after he gladly turned his back on the region, he stood strong in front of a captivated audience in a town not too far away from the council estate where he spent his troubled youth. The man at the podium was once the child who lived in a town that JB Priestley (considered by some to be the instigator of the North-South divide) claimed must have been ‘planned by an enemy of the human race’, and the victim of outrageously common racial discrimination whilst battling severe, undiagnosed dyslexia.
His thriving existence and sheer presence are testament to his resilience, but he does confess that the ounce of truth remaining in Priestley’s (and others’) insulting remarks left an everlasting sting, and one that rings true in the ‘inverted snobbery’ of many a Northerner. The belief that those from the opposite end of the country are somehow ‘unreal’ perpetuates the great discord of the North-South divide, which is something that David doesn’t stand for.
He can recall special occasions spent with close friends who, gathered in the capital city, reminisced, as Geordies often do, about their time up North. Year upon year, they ask each other who is really going ‘home’ for Christmas, even three decades after their official departure. It took fulfilling the local tradition of fleeing ‘for good’ for David to realise that, despite having willingly completed this rite of passage, he could never fully detach from what was such an integral part of himself. Although it was necessary for him to escape to seek better opportunities, he is no longer reluctant or afraid to call Gateshead his home.
Peering down the front row, I could see his family listening to his speech as attentively as if they were hearing his story for the first time. They couldn’t be prouder.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.