Greetings From Bury Park: Race. Religion. Rock’n’Roll
by Sarfraz Manzoor
Bloomsbury £12.99, pp269
Broadcaster and writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s first book brings together three common, though not obviously interlocking motifs of recent literature. It’s about growing up Pakistani and Muslim in modern Britain – the latter only really becoming an issue for him after 9/11 and the attacks on the London Underground. Like Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Gary Imlach’s award-winning My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes, it’s about trying to make sense of the rubble left behind by a father’s death. And, like books by Nick Hornby, Giles Smith and Andrew Collins, it’s about that peculiarly male ability to lead a life entirely motivated and illuminated by popular music, in this case an almost religious devotion to Bruce Springsteen (indeed the title is itself a rickety pun on that of the Boss’s first album). The result is a richly humane, often smile-inducing memoir, yet one whose themes remain strangely reluctant to gel.
Perhaps because of the slightly compartmentalised (British/Asian, Muslim/secular) life Manzoor describes, this is a highly segmented account. The Springsteen-song chapter headings, and the repeated references to his work, attempt to bring unity to the whole, yet the book could just as easily have been divided into three discrete slabs – ‘Growing Up and the Death of My Dad’, ‘My Bruce Springsteen Thing’, and ‘Settling Down and Discovering Who I Really Am’.
The stuff about his early life and his father is terrific, if often painful. The stories of teeth-clenched toil and poverty (second-hand furniture and shoes two sizes too big) are familiar from previous waves of immigrants, but to this are added the problems of being non-Christian and brown. Manzoor handles all this with deftness, appropriate dollops of sentimentality and occasional outbursts of situation comedy. There is a wonderful scene where he returns home with his hair in dreadlocks. When the young Sarfraz removes his hat, his father, seethingly unimpressed by the new thatch, deadpans: ‘Is that another hat?’ His mum, keen to intervene in the row, doesn’t much help: ‘Don’t you understand? Your son wants to be Jamaican. He doesn’t want to be a Pakistani, he is not a Muslim. He wants to be black. Congratulations; two Pakistanis have given birth to a Jamaican son.’
Yet the comedy is marbled with genuine regret. The youthful Manzoor defines himself in opposition to his father. The possible resolution of this conflict – Sarfraz’s success in the mistrusted world of the media – comes just too late; Mohammed Manzoor slipped from coma to death the very day his son’s first professional assignment appeared in the Manchester Evening News. The opening chunk of this book thinks it’s an exploration of difficult times and a tense relationship; in actuality it’s a glowing, almost embarrassed tribute to a loving father who sacrificed everything to try and give his family a life better than that he’d known. It’s simultaneously hugely personal and a set of feelings shared by the offspring of generations of such men who came to these shores from Ireland, eastern Europe and the subcontinent. ‘His moral framework was underpinned by family, responsibility and pride.’
Much the same can be said of the world view and work of Manzoor’s other hero. Bruce Springsteen is the perfect idol and spirit-guide for any sensitive, artistically-inclined young cove. The steel-necked fury of ‘Born in the USA’ has left him widely and hugely misunderstood; indeed, before his conversion, Manzoor calls him ‘a millionaire who goes around in lumberjack shirts pretending to care about the working class’. In truth, of course, Springsteen is America’s greatest blue-collar poet. His songs are about yearning and reaching and stretching for love, meaning and a better life, sometimes close at hand, often just one more uprooting car ride away. And his records have perfectly traced his personal development from youthful stud to vulnerable artist to reflective elder. He also recognises that he is part of an American heritage far wider than mere rock’n’roll; his 1995 classic The Ghost of Tom Joad is an unashamed tip of the bandana in the direction of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
Which is exactly the book Sarfraz Manzoor is reading when a TV job and a series of coincidences gives him 20 minutes of private face-time, in an empty London courtroom, with his hero. It is an outrageous piece of luck, but typical of his bizarre relationship with Bruce. Flying around the world to see him perform, he keeps on meeting him; the courtroom conversation is the cherry on the cake of several previous contacts. His upbringing may have been tough, but Manzoor’s adulthood is plainly charmed.
Even the horrors of the Twin Towers and 7/7 bring some positives, helping him resolve previous conflicts about race and religion. Post-9/11, he flies to the States, fully expecting to be vilified and deported. Instead, US Customs officials, hearing that he’s flown in to see Springsteen, greet him as a soul brother. In the end, though, it’s the explosions on the London tube that force Manzoor to attach guy ropes to his sense of place and self. Greetings ends with the most stark, if gently expressed, denunciation of the homicide bombers yet uttered by a British Asian, and a realisation that it is Britain (not his father’s Pakistan, or Springsteen’s mythical America) that is his ‘land of hopes and dreams’. Implicit is the thought that Britain can be a beautiful place for all people of generous, tolerant, thoughtful disposition. Let’s hope this amusing, caring, Boss-obsessed man is right.
Source: The Guardian