There’s the classic literature beloved of Sunday night costume dramas – a frothy concoction of country piles, corsets and horse-drawn carriages. And there’s the gritty realism of the northern kitchen sink writers, who ushered in a new age of social realism in the 1950s.
The two may seem worlds apart but Caryl Phillips’s latest novel takes Wuthering Heights as its starting point before charting the struggles of a single mother struggling to bring up her children on a bleak Sixties housing development. The result is a startling exploration of alienation and family breakdown that highlights the continuing relevance and originality of Emily Bronte’s work.
The Lost Child begins with a traumatised Heathcliff, the offspring of a wealthy merchant and a former slave woman, struggling to support his ailing mother on the Liverpool docks. It examines Emily Bronte’s own dysfunctional relationship with her father, Patrick, but the juxtaposition of the story of Monica Johnson’s failed marriage to a Caribbean graduate student is a reminder that Yorkshire novelists also changed the literary landscape in the 20th century.
“At the age of 18, I realised that there were different types of England,” says Phillips, who was brought up on the Whinmoor estate in Leeds. “I started to think about how growing up in Yorkshire formed me.
“Emily and Charlotte Bronte always struck a chord because they wrote in dialect. I read the books as a teenager but I didn’t really take them in until I went to university. People like John Braine, Stan Barstow, Keith Waterhouse and David Storey were really important to me as a student because they were the types of writers teachers would not give you to read – unlike posh, southern contemporary authors like Iris Murdoch or Kingsley Amis. It was my way of reminding myself who I was.”
Identity is a recurring theme in Phillips’s work. Arriving in Britain aged just four months after his parents migrated from St Kitts, he grew up in a working-class background, developing a passion for football and pop music. Phillips’s father was a labourer for Kirkstall Forge and British Rail, while his mother occasionally worked on the buses and as a civil servant before going to teacher training college. Initially settling in Beeston and Harehills, the family later moved to Whinmoor in the north of the city. After passing his eleven plus, Phillips secured a place at Leeds Central High School.
But the transition to Oxford University to study English Literature was a real culture shock. “There were always a few black American or African students but their picture of the world was much broader or richer than anything I knew about,” says Phillips. “They didn’t make me feel any less lonely because my northern background was as much, or more, of an issue than my race.”
But the misfit with the regional accent who followed Leeds United was about to take a big gamble.
“I decided I wanted to be a writer but I would not have put it that boldly because I felt that it was too grandiose,” Phillips explains. “I went on the dole in Edinburgh with my girlfriend, which was a huge disappointment to my mother. She wanted me to be a respectable lawyer or doctor but I was determined to write. I was competitive so if I had a job, I would have wanted to do it properly.
“I gave myself a year to see if I could make a go of it. I wrote a play called Strange Fruit and sent it out to theatres in the hope that somebody would think it was good enough to talk to me. Sheffield Crucible liked it and wanted to produce it in October and that made me feel that I had made the right decision.”
Phillips acquired an agent, moved to London and earned a living working for radio, television and Time Out magazine. But the man who was going to specialise in exploring the lives of outsiders still wanted to know more about his own identity. Aged 22, he used the money he had earned from the Crucible production to return to St Kitts.
“I thought that if I was going to write a novel, I had to know about my background and where I come from,” he explains. “It was strange to find myself in a place where everyone seemed similar to me but the only thing I had in common was that I looked like them and I had a piece of paper that said I was born there.”
Phillips took advantage of the opportunity to buy land cheaply in St Kitts following independence in case he needed somewhere to work or a retirement home for his mother. He was soon able to afford a house. “It served me really well because in the Eighties and the early Nineties London was busy, turbulent and exciting. I loved it but St Kitts was somewhere that I could just go and sit down and write – but it was a financial burden and I was living beyond my means.”
Now Professor of English at Yale University, Phillips combines teaching with a literary career that has seen him produce ten novels, five works of non-fiction, four plays and a radio play. His writing has been translated into 13 languages and five universities, including Leeds, York and Leeds Metropolitan, have awarded him honorary degrees. A long list of accolades includes the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for The European Tribe in 1987 and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1992. He has taught in Ghana, Barbados, Sweden, Singapore and India.
Yet despite his peripatetic lifestyle, he feels that the internet has prevented him losing touch with his British roots. Gone are the days when he would call his brother in London so that he could listen to the second half commentary of a Leeds United match over the phone. “These days I can watch live or go online so I feel more connected. I’m in Britain very frequently so I still have one arm in the jacket after all these years.”
And if many of his novels explore issues of race, colonialism and the long-term consequences of the slave trade, that’s because England can no longer delude itself that the past does not throw a long shadow. “All of this resistance to multiculturalism in the most multiracial country in Europe – we are still clinging to this. We imagine a Protestant white face to Britain but I don’t want to make a big issue of it. If I wanted to say it in a more forceful way, I have another form. Colour Me English is a plea to look again at England and understand the complexity. I couldn’t import that into a novel because then it would become a polemic.”
The Lost Child is a story of identity, but also deeply rooted in a sense of place, whether that’s the sterile, Arnhem Croft, a distillation of modernist Sixties northern housing developments, or the shadow thrown by the foreboding moor.
“I read The Return of the Native for A-level and it was one of the central characters. I thought about that bleak landscape but I also knew that it was dangerous because I grew up in the era of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and watched the reports on television – a weird, secluded, brooding place.”
And soon Phillips will be back in the shadow of the moors, making his third appearance at Ilkley Literature Festival. After nearly two centuries, the Yorkshire uplands have lost none of their power to inspire and stir the imagination.
• Renaissance One Presents Caryl Phillips And Robert Antoni: Readings And In Conversation, Clarke Foley Centre, Ilkley, October 10, 7.30pm. www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk