Laura Gascoigne: Uncomfortable Truths – September 2020

Laura Gascoigne
September/October 2020

Six weeks ago, a Hampstead neighbour left a book on our doorstep. We have got used to acts of kindness from strangers; at the start of lockdown another neighbour posted a book of poetry through our door to cheer us up. My husband read it, and it did. But this book was different, as was its intention. It was a copy of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s bestseller Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, with an unsigned post-it note attached. “I’m sure you are good people,” was the gist of its message, “but every time I go up and down the street the lamps in your window make me uncomfortable”. I can’t quote it word for word as it was thrown away. The book wasn’t thrown away; my husband read it. To me it smacked too much of re-education, and I disliked the passive-aggressive anonymity of the note.

The lamps have been in my family as long as I remember. They travelled with us from Cairo, where my father had opened the first English language bookshop after the war, to Belgium where he managed the Brussels branch of W H Smith and on to Cambridge, where he ran a university bookshop. The black figures supporting the lampshades – both dressed in Persian trousers, the man wearing a plumed turban and the woman a tasselled tarboosh – are not a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade: they represent Nubians in the service of an Egyptian Pasha.

The lamps, in other words, are Orientalist, part of that fantasy of the exotic East that swept through Europe in the 19th century, catching the imaginations not only of the sorts of sleazy Salon painters of slave markets and harems that now make us uncomfortable, but of Delacroix and later Picasso – a fantasy that made Arabian Nights a far bigger best-seller than Eddo-Lodge’s extended charge sheet of facts and figures will ever be. Imagination is a shadowy thing that fades in the full beam of facts link and figures, yet it is the stuff of which culture is made. Still, nobody wants to make their neighbours uncomfortable or invite anonymous bricks unaccompanied by post-its through the windows, so the offending lamps are now upstairs lighting the desk on which I am writing this.

For good or ill, these lamps are part of my heritage; I won’t disown them, nor will I disown the rest of it. So here, for the record, is a full confession. My first word was ‘Abdul’, the name of our Egyptian servant; hearing my mother call him around our Cairo apartment I obviously thought I’d try it myself. If that makes me a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist, how about this: my father’s ancestor Sir Thomas Warner, a soldier in the service of Elizabeth I, founded the first British Caribbean colony on St Kitts where his tomb still stands. My grandfather Plum Warner was born in Port of Spain and moved to England to pursue his passion for cricket,