Diane Abbott for Penguin 2019

Photographed for Penguin in London, July 2019 by Greg Funnell

Diane Abbot Shelf Life

Born into a working class British Jamaican family, Diane Abbott grew up in London and has been the Member of Parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987 when she was elected the country’s first black woman MP.

My parents didn’t read books, but they knew they were important. The only one we had in the house was Encyclopedia Britannica, but my mum would take me up the road to the public library in the summer and my Uncle Macky, who was a porter at Euston, would bring me back any books he found on the trains. 

Little Women was the first book I bought on my own. I was in primary school and I saved up my pocket money to get it from a little shop in Harrow. Reading was my way of retreating from the world. It still is.

Jo was the one I identified with. She was the tomboy. I remember she was in love with quite a glamorous young man, but she married an older German professor instead. That was my earliest inclination marriage wasn’t for me. 

There’s a passage in Little Women when they talk about their home, and the walls are full of books. It gave me an idea of the kind of life I wanted. When I grew up I made sure where I lived looked like that.

When I was a teenager Vanity Fair was a set text at school and I fell in love with the heroine, Becky Sharp. She's ruthless and fearless and when she leaves her rather prim and proper girls school, she’s joyful about going out into the world. I had a strong sense of wanting to go out into the world too.

I was in sixth form when I started to discover feminism, through stuff like Germaine Greer and Kate Millet and magazines like Spare Rib. I embraced feminism, but I couldn’t really live it out yet. I remember finding a women’s group near my home in Edgeware and it was full of these very middle-class women. They were talking about fundraising, and one said: “I know, let’s have a male stripper. A black male stripper!” I thought: I’m not coming back to this place. Becky was a person who knew her own mind, and I knew my mine too. 

What can fiction offer you that non-fiction doesn’t? Access to a different world, I suppose. A new perspective, one not limited by current social expectations. Thackerey could write a book in which a woman was the main character, whereas at the time, in the real world, if a woman wanted to borrow money from a bank account she still had to have a man countersign it. Women being at the centre of their own story wasn’t something I saw much when I was a teenager. That’s why Vanity Fair was so exciting to me, and why I’ve never forgotten it.

 

Diane Abbott for Penguin 2019

Photographed for Penguin in London, July 2019 by Greg Funnell

Cambridge was a big shock to me. I was a girl from a black working-class family. Both my parents left school at 14, and I think they’d have been very glad if I’d become a nurse like my Mum. But in all the fiction I read as a child, everyone seemed to go to university. So I decided I would, too. 

Then, when I was in sixth form, my school organised a coach trip to Cambridge. I’d never been there before. To me, it was a fairyland. All those young people wearing their striped coloured scarfs – I thought they were princes and princesses. So my childhood ambition changed from 'I will go to university' to 'I will go to Cambridge'. My teacher told me she didn't think I was up to it, and I just replied: “But I do, and that’s the main thing isn’t it?” Maybe I’d metamorphosed into Jo from Little Women a little bit.

Around university, I discovered Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon. B Johnson. He was president when I was around ten, but at the time everyone was focused on the Kennedys. You tended to think of LBJ as just this boring figure, but Caro really brings him to life, as well as the politics of the era. It’s often described as one of the best political books ever written, and it is.

When I got to university I tried another women’s group. This time one of them announced: “next week, we’re going to have a woman from the ‘town’ come and speak to us…” I didn’t understand the coded way middle-class people talk, but what they meant was ‘a working-class woman’. So this girl turned up, and she sat on her own on this chair with us all on the floor, and I just thought: they’re using this woman as a kind of spectacle. So I still found the organised feminist movement a little bit off-putting. Then I discovered Alice Walker

I think I’ve read every single Alice Walker book. They’ve shaped my political outlook. There’s a phrase from one of the writers at the time: “all the men are black, all the women are white, but some of us are brave”. Back then, black politics was all about men and the women’s movement was all about white women. What Alice Walker opened up for me was feminism in a world of black women. 

She’s a tremendous writer, and In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (1983) is an anthology that gives you the arc of her writing and thinking. It’s her vision. I haven’t met her, but she’s definitely a heroine of mine. 

It was around that time that I became active in the community and black rights. By then, I’d discovered black women’s groups and the black book shop movement. I started to wonder why all the MPs we were lobbying were white, despite representing solidly black and minority areas. That led to the Black Sections campaign, and from that one thing led to another.

People do stop me sometimes to say I've inspired them, but I try not to pay too much attention. I worked in television for a few years and I’ve seen what happens when people become consumed by their self-image. I just get up and try and do my best in the next 24 hours.

I loved Reni Eddo-Lodge's book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2018). Even the title, I thought: wow! It’s good to have a young woman who’s telling it like it is, without pulling any punches. Because when you’re talking about race with people who aren’t black, it can be a bit tiring. You do feel like you have to keep repeating yourself. Reni was bold enough to say: I’m not doing that anymore. 

There was a post-Thatcher generation of black people who felt like, if only they belonged more or assimilated more...  And I thought: I spent my twenties campaigning for this?! Reni represents a continuing thread in black politics, but also a new energy around it. She’s a great writer and she deserves the success that she’s had. 

My ideal reading scenario? On a beach, in the Caribbean, listening to the waves. I don’t read as much fiction as I did in my twenties, which is something I'd like to fix. But then again, I do love reading about politics. I'll be doing it even when I’m a very old lady sitting in Jamaica.

Diane Abbott was talking to Sam Parker.

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