From the archive: A Class Act

He’s a good storyteller, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and he tells a particularly good story about the Lost Missionary: a few years ago, a confused old man kept ringing the Institute of Race Relations, of which Sivanandan is the director, but nobody knew what he wanted. The caller muttered something about wanting to help people, to give aid to those in need, yet he was so obviously in need himself. Eventually out of pity, one of the staff invited him in.

The moment he walked into the room, Sivanandan strode towards him and warmly embraced him. “Of course, I recognised him immediately,” he says now. “He was a famous missionary who had done important anthropological work in India.” The story tells as much about the embracer as the embraced. There is the fact that Sivanandan immediately recognised a bowed-down old man for the noble human being he was. Then there is the instant recall of the content and significance of the missionary’s work, both practical and intellectual. Finally, there is Siva’s kindness – that simple embrace.

But the moral of this tale goes deeper. For it tells us something about a fraternity – not quite secret but never fully understood by those who judge success by material wealth or professional achievement – which devotes itself to the cause of others. There is nothing religious in Sivanandan’s value system, for his is a militant vocabulary of class and racial struggle, a political language inevitably more radical than the Christian’s. But that day the Lost Missionary came to the institute, both men recognised and appreciated a kindred spirit.

Here, all resemblances end. For if time has been cruel to, or at the very least neglectful of, many who dedicate themselves to the interests of others, it has been kind to Sivanandan, or Siva, as he is known to friends and enemies alike. He may not be as well known as many other post-war black intellectuals and activists, but later life has brought him recognition from a wider audience, praise from beyond the circle of the politically committed. Activist, speaker, essayist and latterly novelist, he is now considered one of the most powerful radical voices writing on race, politics, culture and class in Britain over the last 30 years.

Many of his essays are considered classics, from his loving, empirical account of post-war black politics, “From Resistance to Rebellion”, published in the early Thatcher era, to his more recent analyses of the labyrinthine workings of the new globalism. As an essayist, Sivanandan is in a class of his own: his wit, clarity and moral authority place him in the company of the exalted writers of the genre.

At the unlikely age of 73, he published his first novel, When Memory Dies, a turbulent Tolstoyan account of three generations in his native Sri Lanka, which won both a Commonwealth Writers prize and the annual Saga award, given to first-time black authors. One of its earliest champions in manuscript form was his friend and admirer John Berger, who believes that “it takes nerve to stay so close to the substantial reality of those who have suffered such pain and hope. It is a wonderful novel which will undoubtedly last.”

Much of Sivanandan’s work, marginalised in the years of Thatcherism and an answering left politics of compromise, is finding a new relevance. He has written extensively of global trade and economic injustice; this week the World Trade Organisation, which he describes as “international government for multinational capital, skewed in favour of the rich,” met in Seattle.

For a long time, the institute was a lone voice on the perils of European racism and the claims of refugees and asylum seekers; now the world has woken up to the re-emergence of European fascism, and the government’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has come in for hard-hitting criticism.

Another strand in the work of the IRR and Sivanandan – focusing attention on the spiralling number of black deaths in police custody, and racial beatings and killings – has received new legitimacy from the findings of the Macpherson enquiry and recent coverage of the deaths of Ricky Reel and Michael Menson. The politics of institutionalised racism has come to the fore of public consciousness.

If Sivanandan is not as famous as some left-wing figures, it is because he has always kept himself apart from and at odds with mainstream culture. His novel aside, he has published no books: for many years, his essays had a samizdat quality, circulated as dog-eared photocopies, the focus of intense political dispute. (They have since been collected and published in two volumes.)

He has never held an academic post. For the past 27 years he has been director of the Institute of Race Relations, an independent campaigning and educational organisation, which has survived largely on scraped-together grants. He rarely appears in the broadsheets or on radio or television. According to the playwright David Edgar, a friend since the mid 70s: “He has a legitimate fear of what happens to those who become incorporated. He is very aware of the way black politicians can become media figures. It is part of his essential incorruptibility.”

But one can see the harried TV or radio researcher not knowing quite what to do with this neat, wiry Sri Lankan septuagenarian socialist who cannot talk for three sentences without quoting TS Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But politics, rather than personal style, may ultimately be the reason he remains largely unheard. He has retained an unswerving and wholly unfashionable commitment to the causes of class, anti-racism, socialism and internationalism. Edgar says, “What marks out Siva, and the institute as a whole, is this holding on to a class point of view. He feels that somebody has to stand up for the black underclass. No-one else is doing it with any weight.” Rare among the European left, he has made no compromise with market forces or media power. This gives his work a “rare purity”, says John Berger.

The IRR is an anonymous building on an anonymous street corner in London’s drab, rather dispiriting Kings Cross. Inside, it is like any other efficient voluntary organisation or cheerful charity. There is an impressive, well-ordered library. Volunteers work at computer terminals, staff make tea, swap jokes, hand out biscuits. Jenny Bourne, Sivanandan’s wife – they have been together for 29 years, although they only married in 1993 – and herself an acute political writer, hands him messages, fields phone calls, plies waiting visitors with tea. Today it is an Indian Marxist who has delayed his flight for three days in order to talk politics with the old maestro. A security camera is clearly in evidence. There is always the danger of fascist attack.

At the centre of the institute is Sivanandan. Now nearly 76 and still a keen tennis player, he could easily be 10 or 15 years younger. Berger says: “One cannot really talk about him without reference to his unflagging energy. There is something so warm about him. He is very fraternal and maternal at the same time, yet he is as spontaneous as a kid.” He still radiates what Edgar described as a kind of “aggressive impishness. There is something almost overwhelming about his personality.”

Sivanandan tells the story of his life as a potent mix of history and the present, emotion and intellect, loving people, hating what people do. Born in 1923 in Colombo, capital of what was then Ceylon, his childhood was dominated by the “towering figure of my father , all five foot two of him”. Originally from a peasant background, his father had risen through the ranks as a postal clerk until his support for a junior employee led him to be demoted and sent to a station where malaria was rife.

“But he was always taking care of the people he had left behind. Eliot talks about those who ‘have had the experience and missed the meaning’. That is a mortal sin, but it was not my father’s.” Father and son were estranged for many years when Sivanandan, a Tamil, eloped with a young Sinhalese Catholic girl. “He was a terrific man, my father, but he had his prejudices. I used to send money home but he set it aside because of the marriage.”

When Memory Dies gives some flavour of the young Sivanandan’s life and internal conflicts. In colonial Ceylon, a young man of no visible means had either to toady to rich relatives in order to rise up the hierarchy or endure the indignity of teaching. Sivanandan taught briefly, and then went into banking. Even now, he sounds richly amused by the young man he was, the haut bourgeois lifestyle “drinking Becks beers in fluted glasses, importing silk shirts from Hong Kong. But the first ever meeting of the union of bank clerks was held in my house.” In the 1958 Sinhalese riots against the Tamils, Sivanandan, dressed as a policeman in borrowed khaki shorts, waving a gun emptied of bullets, saved members of his family from a baying Sinhalese crowd.

But the sectarianism and hatred he saw sickened him. “What really affected me was when a friend betrayed me, beat the shit out of me, and even my eldest daughter began to talk disparagingly about the Tamils.” Coming to London, he walked straight into the Notting Hill anti-black riots of the same year. One would hardly believe the coincidence in a novel; 30 years later, Sivanandan described this turning point for the young immigrant. “The Sinhalese-Tamil riots there, white-black riots here. And I knew then I was black. I could no longer stand on the sidelines: race was a problem that affected me directly. I had no excuse to go into banking or anything else that I was fitted up to do – yes, fitted up. I had to find a way of making some sort of contribution to the improvement of society.”

His wife and three young children joined him from Sri Lanka but the marriage did not survive. He talks of this personal failure as a tale of love twisted by a complex mix of clashing temperament, religious conflict, racism and material pressure. “All five of us lived in one room in Bayswater. At home, I had been a bank manager and here I was a tea boy in Middlesex library. My wife, who had not had to work before, was a typist on £11 a week, I was getting £10. Then there were tensions over her religion. I couldn’t stand the intolerance of Catholicism. She couldn’t stand my unreliability, I was a pain in the arse. I had a temper. I couldn’t stand people riding roughshod over me.”

Sivanandan was left to bring his children up alone. “I didn’t even know how to cook when my wife left. Bringing up the children alone made a woman of me.” But it was a period of intense suffering. “At night, after I had put the children to bed, I would sit, writing in my notebooks, listening to Schubert and Mozart – that angelic anguish! – I would drink, smoke my pipe, cry. Then I would take my poetry volumes down from the shelf and read.”

In 1964, the now-qualified librarian was taken on at the august and impeccably liberal Institute of Race Relations, then based in patrician Jermyn Street, Piccadilly. Philip Mason, its director at the time, wrote later of the “shy, inarticulate figure” that their new chief librarian presented. But Dipak Nandy, then the only Asian on the institute’s council, and later a senior executive on the Equal Opportunities Commission, remembers him differently: “Siva was obviously much much more than a librarian. He was an intellectual in his own right, hobbled by the restrictions of having to work in such an outfit. All of us had to think carefully before we spoke.”

Nandy recalls that there was something of “a Prospero and Caliban relationship” between Philip Mason and Siva. “Mason regarded himself as a great, benevolent, father figure, who had plucked this unknown young genius out of obscurity and given him a place in which he could flower. Until the end he had this incredibly patronising and paternal attitude towards him.” Nandy also remembers the Sivanandan of this period “as surrounded by a gaggle of young women who absolutely worshipped him”.

Originally a branch of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the IRR was funded by big business: Shell, Nuffield, Rockefeller and Ford among others. In 1990, recalling the seismic split that came 1972, Sivanandan said: “The IRR was supposed to be devoted to the objective study of race relations, here and elsewhere. But after the 1962 Immigration Act it began to take the government’s view that controlling immigration was necessary to improve race relations. Most of the early studies looked into Africa and other newly developing countries with a view to seeing how business could invest there.”

In 1972, Sivanandan and his allies led a coup against the old guard. Their plan was to create a new IRR, “a sort of think-tank, a think-in-order-to-do-tank for black and third world peoples”. As Stuart Hall has written of that period, “few know how he simply hijacked the institute from under their very noses; took the material resources (books, journals, pamphlets, filing cards and connections) which he had helped painfully to accumulate, packed them up, and walked out with them_ transferring them to a less salubrious and less respectable part of town”.

It was then, in his early fifties, that the public career of Sivanandan truly began; the writing, the speaking, the link with grassroots campaigns, the highly publicised meetings with Black Panthers, the analysis of both racism, government immigration policy and resistance to it. Many of his essays first appeared in the austere quarterly Race and Class where, as the film maker Colin Prescod has recorded, their impact was huge: “There is a generation of black British community activists who emerged politically in the heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, for whom Sivanandan is possibly the most original influence in their lives.”

The early essays included “From Resistance to Rebellion”, his dense account of black movements in Britain from 1958 to the early Thatcher period, and the enraged study of colonial influence, “The Liberation of the Black Intellectual”. Then there are the political haiku – miniature character and political sketches on significant figures in contemporary black history such as Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson.

Like many great essayists, Sivanandan’s best work is always a form of attack. Many credit him with the demise of racism awareness training, fashionable in many liberal and left-leaning authorities in the early 1980s, which he demolished in his essay “RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle”. His 1990 essay, “All that Melts into Air is Solid”, a stinging attack on the trendy betrayals and selfish limitations of the new left gathered around the once-popular magazine Marxism Today, remains one of the most substantial and influential attempts on the left to halt the drift towards consumerism and compromise.

David Edgar, who achieved the almost impossible feat of staying close to both Marxism Today and the Institute of Race Relations, says now: “The crucial thing was that he challenged that old left model of the world. Siva was one of the first writers to analyse the change from manufacturing to a post-industrial economy in the west. Clearly he was on to the epochal nature of that shift. Unlike others, he always looking at post Fordism and globalisation from the perspective of what he calls the periphery, the place where capital is at its rawest and most extravagant, and where the cutting edge of the class struggle may now be.”

Suresh Grover, organiser of the Stephen Lawrence campaign, and a national coordinator of the new National Civil Rights Movement, first came across Sivanandan in the mid 1970s when, as an Asian teenager fleeing the beatings of skinheads in Lancashire, Grover walked straight into the bloody politics of London’s Southall. For him the power of Sivanandan’s work, as writer and speaker, is that “he thinks like an activist. There’s a brutality in this writing that reflects the brutality on the street. Had Siva been writing on the Lawrence stuff, there wouldn’t be the vacuum that there is after the Macpherson enquiry. Apart from that in small political groupings, the only real debate is going on in the home office.”

But Sivanandan has had his bitter critics. For many, particularly those working within the official race relations industry, his politics allow no room for new configurations of the world, or political compromise. He has been described as a Marxist but says: “I do not call myself a Marxist. For me, Marxism is not an ideology but a method of analysis, a living dynamic that needs to be constantly updated, a way of apprehending reality in order to change it.”

Among younger academics, his work is criticised for remaining untouched by the great modern discourses, in particular psychoanalysis, cultural studies and feminism. As one prominent black academic, who did not want to be named, said, “There is no doubt that his work was seminal in the 70s and 80s. But he has had nothing new to say for years.”

Sivanandan has never hidden his distaste for the political values of an emerging black middle class. He says now, “You know there are two racisms. There is the racism that discriminates and the racism that kills. Middle-class black people, they have the CRE, community relation councils, pundits, the whole bloody works, there’s an infrastructure for them. But the racism that kills – the Stephen Lawrences, Ricky Reels, Michael Mensons – they don’t have anyone. And that is the racism I am concerned about. I have always spoken from and to that constituency and they trust us at the institute. Maybe there’s a price to pay but the position of trust makes it worth it.”

The commentator on race affairs, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, recalls: “Siva’s earlier work was incredibly important. It really changed my life. But he has not accommodated the changes that have taken place in society and in all of us. One area he has misjudged is the importance of a cultural and religious identity, for both black and white, as opposed to a simple political identity. He probably finds it deeply depressing, as do I, but that’s how it is.”

But not all mainstream black figures see Sivanandan as refusing to move with the times. Sir Herman Ouseley, outgoing chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, met Sivanandan in the late 70s and was immediately impressed by him. He believes the IRR has learned how to reach out: “They have made their work accessible to a wider audience. They have opened up to a new technology, a new market in a populist way. I admire their tenacity working for peanuts and in difficult conditions, linking academics and abstract work to grass roots struggles and campaigns.” Of Sivanandan he says tactfully that “he has retained all his principles but he’s a little more patient with people who don’t see eye to eye with him”.

Certainly, the institute has been assiduous in its attempts to draw in a new generation of activists and widen its educational and political audience. How many 76-year-olds will appear on the next Asian Dub Foundation CD (out next spring), even if it is to talk over a track about refugees, the IMF and globalism? Race and Class, a quarterly offshoot of the IRR edited by Sivanandan, has drawn in some of the most significant political and intellectual thinkers of the post- war period. Those who have sat on its editorial working committee or council include John Berger, the scholars Basil Davidson, Cedric Robinson and Edward Said, and Orlando Letelier, Allende’s ambassador to the US, who was subsequently assassinated. Contributors have included Noam Chomsky, EP Thompson, Jeremy Seabrook and Angela Davis. Sivanandan himself is explicit about being a political writer, even in his fiction. In an interview with the Voice newspaper he said, “If you read my political stuff you’ll find it is creative – I hope my creative writing is political – I don’t separate the two.” He has frequently said he is not a novelist, just a storyteller.

But many of his admirers are drawn to his very writerliness, a quality perhaps heightened by quite conscious tensions within Sivanandan between politics and representation, style and substance. This is the man, after all, who employs Eliot’s Wasteland in the service of an argument about race, class and the state, who invokes Keats to illuminate the struggles of the black intellectual, marooned between coloniser and the colonised.

Berger says: “It is as if there are always these other beings in him – Siva the poet, Siva the political person, Siva the storyteller, Siva the host – all constantly surveying Siva the thinker, to check that he never slips back into simple politics. He is like someone who works with steel, always tapping a scythe to check the quality of the steel. A good scythe has that special zing.” David Edgar says he was drawn “to a mellifluous quality in his writing. I am particularly fond of those grand Johnsonian sentences, full of balance and structure. There is something Augustan and very elegant about his work.”

Sivanandan is working now on a group of short stories, to be published next year under the title Where the Dance Is. One of them is an elaboration of that anecdote about the Lost Missionary, using the bare bones of the tale to explore the human need for commitment, to give back to the societies from where we come, to make a contribution.

But these are not just stories about politics, they are also about London: “Nobody writes about places like King’s Cross, the shit, the streets, the drugs, the Portakabin policing, the big hotels for the American tourists.” Some of the stories were begun decades ago, when he was still training as a librarian, writing on the underground between his home in Finchley and Piccadilly Circus. “Then they were just small things, with a twist in the tail. Now I have to put the body in them, and some have changed out of all recognition.”

But there is no chance that at this late age Sivanandan will retire into life as a writer pure and simple. “I love working on my short stories, because when they come right they are such jewels. But then I come here to the institute and read reports such as Nick Davies on education or see Blair speaking, and I’m right back in the struggle. For me, politics is very visceral. You read a lot of writers and you can see, they don’t feel imperialism, they don’t feel injustice. While I get a gastric ulcer…” He bangs his chest with a balled fist. “You see, I feel it all, my politics, my hatred of injustice. I feel it right here, in my solar plexus.”

Life at a glance: Ambalavaner Sivanandan

Born: Colombo, Ceylon, December 20,1923.

Education: St Joseph’s College, Colombo; University of Ceylon.

Married: 1950 (three children, Tamara, Natasha, Rohan), marriage dissolved; 1993 Jenny Bourne.

Employment: Variously as banker, teacher, teaboy, librarian, editor and writer; director of the Institute of Race Relations 1972-;

founded journal Race and Class 1972.

Consultancies: World Council of Churches, Greater London Council, UN Commission on Human Rights.

Publications: A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance (Pluto, 1982); Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism (Verso, 1990); When Memory Dies (Arcadia, 1997).

Prizes: Commonwealth writers (Eurasia region,1998).

• A World to Win; essays in honour of A Sivanandan, is published by the Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, King’s Cross Road, London WC1X 9HS. When Memory Dies is published by Arcadia Books.

This piece was first published in The Guardian on December 4 1999.

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