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Book review: <i>British As A Second Language</i> by David Bennun


the cover of the book

If this was a restaurant, it would serve Springbok kebabs with a union jack spiked, half-jokingly, into the top.

Cover

Some wacky Photoshop action that puts a giraffe in a suburban British street. Oh well, at least it doesn’t have the author’s boof-head pasted onto it.

Plot

During his teens, at the start of the eighties, David Bennun’s parents move from South Africa back to the UK, taking him along. Having spent his whole life in a semi-rural community among Africans and fed ideas of Britain ranging from the idealistic to the anachronistic, it comes as something of a shock for him to be dunked straight into student life at one of the nation’s less salubrious learning institutions and the churning social morass which was Thatcherite Britain.

The good

Bennun’s portrayal of his amiable, hideously unfashionable teenage self adjusting to student life—bongs, share housing, execrable food, poverty, radical politics, etc.—is genuinely funny. If you know anything about the “punk” period of Britain’s history, you’ll probably also find something of interest here. Bennun freely admits that University life is both a microcosm of, and on a island separate to, normal life, but it’s impossible not to see how his experiences mirror the upheavals of the ex-empire around him. There’s a particularly funny chapter delineating Bennun’s route through the novel and inexpensive horrors of British cuisine (or at least those parts of it available to students in the eighties), and another discussing the evolution of the “crusty”, a now-declining species of post-hippie who flourished in the eighties and nineties, not to mention the other species so well portrayed in the Young Ones—punks, students, hippies, anarchists and activists. Ben Elton did it well two decades ago but it’s just as funny through the modern eye.

I’m not sure if I can also blame The Young Ones for this, but I really do find this recent era of British history interesting, and Bennun filters its oddness through his own lens well enough to convince us we’re reading something more meaningful than a hazy recollection of student life. He’s particularly good, though I’m not quite sure why, at bringing out the laugh of recognition—there’s a chapter involving a landlord who turns up and does useful repairs without notice at any time of the day, which was a habit shared by my first landlord, and another moment where he recognises, in an Australian expat, his own sense of spending years in an ex-colony hearing of a Britain which no longer exists, if it ever did, before going there to discover it first hand.

As I’ve said before, I like a bit of period, to the extent of being mystified as to why. British As A Second Language combines post-empire Britain and the early eighties, two points on my Yes list, plus the stranger-in-a-half-familiar-land trope that is universal. It may well be a sign of the feeble to grow nostalgic for the recent past, but the teenage Bennun does indeed occupy a unique space in time. Ex-colonials are no longer taught of Britain as the genteel tea-based ideal which was almost gone even in Bennun’s day, and, even if they were, a newcomer to Britain’s shores would, at least, find a place far less wracked with change than the UK of 79. Jeremy Clarkson may find a lot to whinge about on “the telly” but he no longer has skinheads, punk, anarchy, polltax riots, miners riots, race riots, or militant vegetarian wimmin’s collectives to complain about. I must admit, too, to a certain satisfaction that it seems early-eighties British student life was at least a little bit as melodramatic, grubby and freezing cold as a dozen alternative comedians had assured me. Teenage Bennun does his groceries at two dollar shops, grows white-boy dreadlocks, lives in hovels, fails to see why being from South Africa is contentious in 1982, takes LSD, wears terrible clothes, drops clangers and it’s GREAT.

The prose is straightforward, but effective. It’s easy to imagine Bennun as a magazine writer, because he regularly manages that prose trick of being insultingly simplistic without being simplistic or insulting, if you know what I mean. There’s not a lot of subtext or thematic development, but subtext and complex themes aren’t why you’ll read this.

The bad

Well, as we approach the present, Bennun’s one-note premise fades. There’s a decent middle third where he talks about his early career at Melody Maker and then Loaded magazine, which he claims to have quit because he wasn’t laddish enough—he still ties this loosely to his colonial upbringing, but, really, being insufficiently laddish to work at Loaded is a bit like being insufficiently fond of ferrets to work at Ferret Fancier Monthly.

No, the problem comes during the final third, when we’re approaching the millennium and Bennun no longer has any meaningful distinctions to draw between the UK and his distant South African past, so he just starts writing opinion. Tedious, world-weary, cod-self-deprecating, half-informed, British opinion. It begins with a partly-justified stab at rock festivals and the goers thereof—if a journo being paid to go to Glastonbury and write about it who can’t think of a nice thing to say in hindsight boils your blood, then you should probably put the book down right here. As the last third winds on, Jeremy Clarkson, Grumpy Old Men, Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit (volume one and two) get closer and closer as Bennun rails against teenagers, hooded sweatshirts, mobile phones on the tube, the cult of Diana, vegetarians, and techno music. Eventually he has the good sense to pull back and make an attempt to reframe the final chapters in terms of his origins, and even manages to add to his list of complaints a slightly surprising irritation at bigots who claim to be under attack from the forces of political correctness—the opposite opinion to that typically espoused by Bennun’s boomer cohorts. But it’s too late. The stables are horse-less the instant he invokes that inexcusable fogeyism, Common Sense.

If you find the blurb interesting, read the first two thirds, that’s my advice. But who does that? Nobody. So really I’m saying “read it, if you find the blurb interesting”. Well done, Tom. Good thing you’re around.

What I learnt

My habit of picking up comfort reading is getting out of hand. From now on, if there’s nothing fascinating per se about your life, you either need to be at least as funny a prose comedian and astute an observer as Bill Bryson to be worth my time. Pay attention weekend brain!

In short

Title: British As A Second Language
Author: David Bennun
Publisher: Ebury Press
ISBN: 0091900344
Year published: 2005
Pages: 320
Genre(s): Non fiction, Humour, Autobiography

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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