Autobiographer, Autobiography, Book review., Books, Caryl Phillips, Cosmopolitanism, History, Immigration, Literary criticism, London, Memory, Modernity, Opinion, Politics, Race, Saint Kitts, The Final Passage, The Windrush Generation
If one expects the immigrant’s autobiography to testify to the world which they have left behind, then introducing this erstwhile culture to new readers, and transforming the autobiographical narrative into a sellable commodity, may necessarily compromise a straightforward evocation of the past. For example, if the immigrant to Britain wants their work to be read generally, they will write in English, or, if not “formal” English, then at least one recognisable to most English-speaking consumers. Whilst autobiography is theoretically genre-less, within Western literature it characteristically assumes the form and structure of a novel. Caryl Phillips’ debut novel The Final Passage (1985) attempts to recover an errant past and a lost truth, but these ambitions are compromised by its proximity to British culture. The novel tells the story of Leila, a young woman from an unspecified Caribbean island, who arrives in Britain in the 1950s with her husband Michael and infant son Calvin. Phillips had stated that the book:
…was written in a spirit of, I hope, generosity, paying tribute to my parents’ generation and trying to recapture the major contribution that was being denied by certain politicians – undermined, trivialized…. There’s no major industry – the Post Office, British Telecom, British Rail, the health system – that’s not staffed by their children. But people don’t know their origins.
Phillips himself was born on the small Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1958, and bundled off to Britain at the age of twelve weeks old, but he has stressed that The Final Passage is not autobiographical: “my mother’s a different type of woman from Leila, and my father’s a different type of guy from Michael, actually” [ibid]. Yet Phillips is unable to write autobiographically in The Final Passage because he was sentiently incomplete, or even absent, during the act of immigration. If Phillips’ parents had chosen to tell him that he had been born in Britain, then he may have lived his life not knowing any better. In a rather extreme variation upon the autobiographer’s alienation from the past, Phillips’ starting-point at the act of narrating The Final Passage is the misfortune of being too British, of being buried within British culture, and of being removed from his “origins.”
Phillips blurs the distinction between his own autobiography and the history of the Windrush generation by evoking a self who has no significant individuality and who can indirectly identify with the descendants of all Caribbean immigrants to Britain. Whether The Final Passage describes a infant such as Phillips or Phillips himself, there is surely no meaningful distinction between the two: one baby resembles any baby. The Christmas card “from nobody” which Leila receives at the end of the novel suggests a tabula rasa – because it is seemingly blank – and it may symbolise both the Britain which she is yet to leave a mark upon and her “blank” infant whose identity will be narrated in Britain. In an apparently hallucinatory passage, Leila observes Calvin’s reflection in a shop window asking (“though he could not as yet speak”): “Why is Santa Claus white?” This mirror-baby speaks with the voice of the sort of adult who Calvin will eventually become, and who Phillips has already became: one sceptical of “white” reality.
In 1980, at the age of twenty-two, Phillips “returned” to St. Kitts with his mother. He enthused that, “The trip liberated me. It kicked my brain out of a British perspective; I realised the narrative didn’t begin in Leeds or Brixton.” In describing a homeland of which he had no memory, Phillips confessed that, “quite frankly, it is a matter of research.” He had to ultimately resort to external sources to recover his own past. One may presume that he succeeds, although the writer Simon B. Jones-Hendrickson, a native of St Kitts, has judged that:
There are a few lapses of English in a Caribbean setting, possibly because the author’s ideas were solidified in the English environment. For example, Phillips talks about someone lying drunk like a bag of sugar that fell off a “lorry.” In the Caribbean of the day, and in the St. Kitts of the novel’s setting, the word would be “truck,” not lorry. The difference is important. In addition, he mentions that children pressed their faces to the glass of a school bus. Again, in the period in which the novel is set, there were no school buses… children went to schools in trucks.
To the eye of this connoisseur, Phillips’ Caribbean is a skilful counterfeit. Jones-Hendrickson insists that these imperfections “are minor, however, and are really peripheral to the essence of the novel”. One may object that no British critic has highlighted equivalent “lapses of English” in an English setting, even though The Final Passage is set in a post-war London of which Phillips would have needed to “research” just as thoroughly as the novel’s Caribbean scenes. Yet The Final Passage exempts itself from the obligation of having to represent an authentic Caribbean history and culture by suggesting that Leila’s “small island” – with its African Yams, Indian Mangos, Pacific Coconuts, and English cricket – has no identity of its own which may prove incommensurable to a British understanding. The novel’s “lapses” consist of mere anachronisms, such as an inappropriate reference to a bus, rather than inexpert evocations of an alien culture.
The Final Passage is largely written in formal English, with only gentle attempts to evoke a Caribbean “voice”: “No man, you is arse… and arse is arse, but is you foot you drop the thing on.” There is no Caribbean slang, or anything which particularly needs to be explained to British readers. The uninformed reader can do nothing but accept the suggestion that there is no indigenous Caribbean culture (or subcultures) which Phillips may have ignored or overlooked.
The epigraph of The Final Passage – some lines from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding – observe that, “A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments.” Eliot can only conclude that “History is now and England.” The Final Passage is narrated from and within a position of “now and England” – which corresponds to the timeless moment within which the autobiographer is perpetually exiled – and the novel can only produce, for a people “without history”, a second-hand account of their immigration to Britain. Phillips’ sources for the novel included anecdotes retold within his own family, 1950s newsreel footage, and Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956). Even Phillips’ seemingly unconventional emphasis upon the experiences of a housebound Jamaican wife rather than those of her gallivanting husband is thoroughly implied in Selvon’s fiction. And in recycling history, Phillips at times resorts to a sort of mythology, which substitutes facts for symbols.
His Caribbean is a sleepy and unproductive place, where it is customary to have “a nice time sitting out in the sun, drinking beer, listening to music and talking.” Bradeth’s “shop” – a rare example of any work upon the island – is inherited rather than the result of his own enterprise. When adapting the book for television, Phillips ordered his cameraman that, “If at any moment in the film, the Caribbean looks like a place you want to go on holiday to, we’re fucked…: You’ve got to make this place look shit” [ibid]. Phillips’ descriptions of the Caribbean, whether symbolic or drawn from life, accord with traditional conceptions of the region as (in the words of David Lloyd George) “the slums of the empire.” The awaiting England, on the other hand, resembles the frantic industrial modernity depicted in the “naïve” paintings of L.S. Lowry:
The sky hung so low it covered the street like a dark coffin lid. The cars that passed by were just blurry colours, and the people rushed homeward, images of isolation, fighting umbrellas and winds that buffeted their bodies.
The Final Passage suggests that in abandoning their sleepy islands for a racing metropolis, Caribbean people effectively emigrated to modernity from a previous historical epoch. Alphonse’s description of England as “a college for the West Indian” suggests that this new nation will not just provide financial opportunities, but personal enlightenment; even if the unpleasantness and gloom of the post-war period temporarily qualifies immigrant aspiration. The second-generation immigrant is not only reassured that their “origins” fit into British history, like a flag which one can wave in a pageant – a reassurance which counters a traditional tendency to downplay the contributions of immigrants to Britain – but they are also urged to identify with a solidarity which is more than merely British: the “black Atlantic”, or idea that the African diaspora share a common history and identity. Phillips himself publishes his fiction in Britain, teaches in America, and owns a home in St Kitts: his sense of self has apparently been informed, updated, or even constructed through research into his “origins,” into a sort of cosmopolitan, transatlantic identity.
At the end of The Final Passage, Leila needs to surrender to modernity and accept that her journey through history is a “final passage.” One cannot quite imagine this vulnerable and destitute figure making it back to Jamaica (as she intends), but adapting to Britain will necessitate compromising, and depending upon resources such as the cheerful Mary, the “sexually hungry” Earl, and the off-putting social worker Miss Gordon. Only when Leila has temporarily, even strategically, chosen a nation, and contributed to modernity, can her descendents be informed by their past; which may arrive in the form of a commodity such as The Final Passage: an inauthentic or mythological history which is mass-produced by the industrialised modernity which had demanded the immigrant’s contribution in the first place. At the end of the novel, Leila symbolically dissents from modernity by destroying its commodities; incinerating the future as if it were the past in the form of “the objects and garments that reminded her of her five months in England”: pillowcases, clothes, a “bunch of plastic flowers, a shopping bag, a small vase, a set of ashtrays; and in the kitchen cups, food, anything.” Yet when she awakens after the fire, “things were strewn” all over her room, which suggests that modernity is essentially indestructible.