Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor
21/06/07, The Sunday Telegraph
Let’s get the reservations out of the way first. Greetings from Bury Park, Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiography of growing up Pakistani in Luton in the 70s and 80s, appears to be a confection triangulated between publisher, PR and agent. At a time when there is hysteria and hand-wringing, in equal measure, about Muslims and integration, a theme on which Manzoor has written lucidly and eloquently in his newspaper pieces, there cannot be a more ‘integrated’ British Muslim than Manzoor himself: commissioning editor at Channel 4, regular contributor to the Guardian and the Observer, presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live, possessed of a ‘messianic passion’ for Bruce Springsteen. An entire chapter, entitled ‘The Promised Land’, speaks swooningly of his love for the United States; you can almost hear a publishing-type in the background insisting how vital it is for a Muslim to articulate this emotion. Eschewing the straitjacket of a chronological account, Manzoor finds himself imprisoned in a kind of ticking-the-boxes prison: alienation of young Muslim from the cultural coercions of his origins – tick, rebellion against arranged marriage – tick, making it in what John Birt once called the ‘hideously white’ world of British media – tick … it’s the sort of book Blair wanted the entire British Muslim population to produce by the hundreds after 9/11 changed the geopolitical map.
So it is very much to Manzoor’s credit that most of these gripes can be forgotten when faced with the sheer humanity, energy, good humour and big-heartedness of his book. What begins as a belated letter of love, respect and admiration for his father, Mohammed, morphs effortlessly into an insider’s account of the hard-bitten, overstretched, tense lives of an entire section of the British population we have chosen to elide over until the crisis of 9/11 and the London Tube bombings. Mohammed arrived in England in 1963 and had to wait until 1974 before he could bring his wife and four children over from Pakistan. In the meantime, he worked in soul-destroying little jobs, ending up at the production line in Vauxhall, only to be made redundant after several years.
Money was chronically scarce, so he set his wife and daughter to make Pakistani dresses at home, making them keep sweatshop hours while pocketing all the money they earned for household expenses. Sarfraz and his sister, Uzma, were sent to work, in a textile factory or a sandwich-making plant, during their school holidays, and made to do as much overtime as they physically could; the children didn’t get to see a single penny of their wages. And the question of his girls going to university was dealt with in the time-honoured way Asian parents deal with what they consider rebellion: emotional blackmail, threats, coercion, unbending truculence. As Manzoor writes: ‘I owe my life to two strokes of incredible luck: I was not born female and I was not the oldest son.’ In the process of rationalising all this, he gives us nothing short of a lived, experienced social history of first-generation Asian immigrants in Britain.
It is this, rather than the overly schematised narrative of assimilation, or the final shout-line of ‘I was born in Pakistan but made in England; it is Britain which is my land of hope and dreams’ (there, that publisher’s voice again), that makes the book live and breathe. Every detail of life with his family, every nuance of social practice, every conversation, every confrontation rings so true that you feel you have been offered a privileged seat in his living room. Suffusing all this is Manzoor’s warm, humane, unsensational voice: it makes you want to extend the hand of friendship to him.