More than 20 million Britons, 1 in every 3 alive (among them King George VI), tuned in to their radios in 1951 when Randolph Turpin took on Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight crown of the world. This was doubly surprising, insofar as the mixed-race Englishman was boxing for a country where, just four years earlier, blacks even if British-born were not allowed to compete for the national championship. When Turpin pulled off a remarkable upset against the highly favored American only Robinson's second loss in 135 fights he seemed more than ever an emblem of the so-called British bulldog spirit. Within four years, though, he was facing rape charges in New York and being described by an American prosecuting attorney as a "jungle beast in human form." The man who had once received $200,000 to take on Robinson ended up working in a junkyard and committing suicide.
It would be nice to think that his case was exceptional. But it is the burden of Caryl Phillips' latest searching meditation on outsiders in England that Turpin's story is much too typical. Beside him, in the triptych that makes up Foreigners: Three English Lives, is the story of Samuel Johnson's Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, who ended up in penury, though Phillips' narrator remembers him as "at one time, probably the foremost negro in England." Then there's the story of David Oluwale, a Nigerian who stowed away as a teenager to come to England in 1949, dreaming of becoming an engineer, was greeted with 28 days' incarceration and was later committed to an insane asylum for eight years. All these men were seen as foreigners, though their tragedies seem purely British.
Ever since the first of his 12 books, 22 years ago, Phillips has been trying, with unusual seriousness and concentration, to rewrite English literature by filling in the gaps, the black holes, in the country's official story of itself. In The Nature of Blood, for example, he gave us Othello's story in the Moor's own voice; in Cambridge, he bestowed the name of the august English university on a doomed West Indian slave. His view does not overlook class or other races in Foreigners he points out that more than 2,000 Jews fought for Britain in World War I, only to be greeted on their return as aliens. Yet where others complain about history, Phillips sets about remaking it, in more inclusive terms.
As befits his theme, this new book is a hybrid, a mix of history, fiction and first-person reportage, its opening section delivered in the 18th century voice of a friend of Johnson's, the closing one in a collection of voices (white, West Indian, African), recalling the quiet, solitary-seeming Oluwale as he walked around the streets of Leeds. Yet all the pieces are linked by a sense of deep loneliness and the bitterest ironies. Barber, like Oluwale, is found in an infirmary, dressed in his late master's clothes and looking "as sad and as broken as any man can be." Oluwale, discovered dead in a river, after police harassment, is described by one cop as a "wild animal, not a human being" and by a nurse as "a savage animal." Both Barber and Turpin marry white Englishwomen, yet systematically undermine themselves through failures of judgment.
It is typical, in fact, of Phillips' nuanced approach that he refuses to call blacks either the victims or the makers of their own misfortune; private indiscipline conspires with collective exclusiveness to bring about their tragedies. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts himself, though brought to Leeds as a boy, and now living in New York, Phillips has seen the struggle from both sides. What gives his accounts their particular sting is that even good intentions seem of no avail. Barber, for example, was treated with unwavering kindness by Johnson, who had him educated, saw him almost as a son and worried about what would happen to him after his own death. The Barber story is narrated by a self-styled philanthropist who wishes that "all ebony personages" be resettled in Africa or the West Indies but only because the English air "soon reduces these creatures to a state of childish helplessness," bringing the whole country down.
Foreigners is written, like all Phillips' books, in a style of even, sorrowful precision that enrages as it informs. Its anger is the stronger for being deployed with such classic restraint. And the stories he chooses to share speak for thousands of other lives that are, and always will be, untold. A powerful complement to such novels as A Distant Shore (which won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize three years ago), Foreigners is really one piece of a mosaic that Phillips has been carefully and patiently putting together all his life. Britain cannot know itself, he suggests, until it acknowledges all of its parts.