From Maggie Gee: The White Family, pp. 97-100
Maggie Gee's eighth novel explores the "problem" of race as it originates and festers in the minds of
present-day white Britons. 'The White Family' is an audacious, groundbreaking condition-of-England novel
that delves for the roots of xenophobic (=ausländerfreindlich) hatred and violence in the English hearth.
May= Mother White
(In this excerpt May remembers the good old times when she would go shopping and know all the shopkeepers
personally. Now almost the shops are closed down and have been substituted by supermarkets)
Alfred = her ill husband.
(Alfred White is the keeper of Albion Park. An army veteran, he has mounted a 50-year campaign to
enforce park rules, keep order and "hold the fort". If it were left to him, the park in Hillesden Rise -
a fictitious part of London reminiscent of Willesden or Hackney - would have stricter rules: "This
was England. If in doubt, keep them out."
Shirley = their daughter
We used to have everything here, she thought, Hillesden Rise was like a village. We used to have a bank;
that went in ninety-four (=1994). And a building society. That vanished soon after. And the chemist -
that went six months ago. She'd seen it coming; Mr Frost had been depressed, especially since the incident
last year when two drug addicts beat him with the butt of a gun. She wouldn't say it to Shirley, but
both of them were black ... The most innocent remarks offended her daughter. Two flower-shops; both
of them had gone under. Served them right for charging too much, though she missed the great lilies
and the golden chrysanthemums waving at her behind the glass. Two shoe-shops; gone. Where she bought
the kids' shoes. Their first tiny sandals, their sensible school-shoes. Now there was just a man who
did repairs, an Indian, a gruff old thing who reminded her of her own father, sitting in the dark all
day, hammering and sticking, helped by shrill-voiced women who were daughters or grand daughters.
(You wouldn't catch an English family doing that, these days, though I helped my father, when I was
Once we had a bakery-cum-cake-shop. She used to buy gingerbread1 men for the kids, and a sponge2 on
Saturdays, since hers always sagged. It was - an ornament to the high street, the cake-shop, a sign
of the prosperity that came with the fifties. May used to like sniffing the air outside: eggs, sugar,
butter, vanilla. But the shop changed hands some time in the eighties; they brought in rubbish baked
in Kilburn. By the time they folded, no one much cared ... There was a solicitor's3 where May and Alfred
had made their wills twenty years ago, when it seemed like a joke that they would ever need them. That
only survived the bank by a year. Electrical Goods; went in ninety-six. Hardware store; ditto.
Jewellers; late eighties. May missed the jewellers; it was romantic, looking in at the second-hand
rings and lockets and lucky charms, gleaming on the velvet. She had liked old Hymie, who also mended
watches, and never minded getting things out of the window even though he knew May was only looking.
(He was . . . partial to her, when she was younger, when they were both young; a lifetime ago.) But
he got too nervous, after three or four break-ins, the last one with him present, in broad daylight.
He didn't resist, but they still broke his jaw. 'My wife says, "Hymie, it's just not worth it." '
We had two or three butchers - three, after the war. They used to dress up properly, in blue striped
aprons. Then later with little white trilby4 hats. Then the windows started to look a bit patchy,
because butchers needed to have lovely full windows, gleaming chops and ribs and legs, not grey lumps
eked out5 with plastic parsley6. Last November the one surviving butcher closed. 'We had hoped to keep
going till Christmas, Mrs White. I don't like to let the customers down.' His face had been pallid as
the chicken-legs. 'Don't worry, we'll go down to Gigamart,' said a stringy young woman with a bright
yellow crewcut7, dragging her toddler out of the shop. May wanted to kick her, but she did have a point.
If they'd had a car, she would have done the same. May had been keen to drive, at one stage, when
Ruby and George had got their first motor, but Alfred was always too busy to learn, and he thought
he'd look silly being driven by a woman. And now l'll be stranded, she thought resentfully, then
realized that meant if Alfred dies.....
There used to be a fish-monger's with marble slabs8 on which beautiful blue and pink bodies gleamed.
She used to buy roes9, and do them on toast ...
When we were first married. It was Alfred's favourite. His eyes were so blue when he smiled at me.
And kippers10, for breakfast. And the odd bit of plaice11. He thought fish was healthy, though the smell
was awful, and I bought it regularly, twice a week, but what good did it do him, what good, what
May stopped, found her hanky, pulled herself together. She couldn't go crying in the street at
She passed the betting-shop. She rarely looked in through the plateglass windows with their crude
graphics. It seemed like catching men at something shameful; they went in looking furtive12, came out
looking sad. In the past ten years it had doubled in size, to three time; the size of a normal shop.
May had bet twice in her life, both times on the Derby, both times when the names of the horses seemed
lucky, 'Early Sherbet', which reminded her of Shirley, and 'King Alfred', which of course - of course.
And she lost the money, naturally. It was a sort of sink, soaking up people's money. But all sorts of
betting was popular, these days. The paper-shop she favoured did the Lottery. A huge yellow sign
beckoned from the window. Whereas George had turned down the chance to have the Lottery. 'Ruby says
it's taking people's money for nothing. They don't have a lot to spare, round here.'
They did. She saw them. A tenner at a time, and the poorest people were the worst of the lot. A tenner13
on Saturday and 'instants' on week days. Betting and boozing, as other things dwindled. Till all that was
left would be the pub and the betting-shop. Nowhere for people like May to go.
The shop keepers all used to know my name ... They knew our kids. Looked out for them. Shirley never
went out without being given toffees. And the mothers all used to meet up in the shops. We stood there
talking and blocking up the gangways till the shopkeepers started giving us looks. But it wasn't bad
for business, not really. The local shops were like a club. If you asked, they would get things in
just for you. They even cashed cheques when the bank was closed. It was like a dream now, all that
bustle and variety, people who smiled and knew your name ... In Gigamart, the staff all looked like
robots. Stacking shelves by numbers, in nylon uniforms.
It was all going faster than May had realized. Almost trotting down the street, her blue coat clutched
around her, she saw that more than half the shops were boarded up, or had their fronts covered with
aluminium shutters, which rattled coldly in the winter winds. 'To Let', the boards said, hopefully,
but no one new came except charity shops, and they already had three, full of wrong-coloured garments14.
So the boards got battered15, and looked grimy, guilty, each one a confession of failure and emptiness.
It was over, Hillesden Rise was over, over, and May found the tears welling up again, and realized she
was crying for herself and Alfred and the silly young couple they had once been.
We liked it here. It was our - El Dorado. Once upon a time, it had all we needed.
1. gingerbread - Lebkuchen
2. sponge - Biskuitkuchen
3. solicitor - Notar, Jurist
4. trilby - Filzhut
5. to eke out - aufbessern
6. parsley - Petersilie
7. crewcut - Bürsten(haar)schnitt
8. slab - Steinplatte
9. roes - Rogen (Fisch)
10.kippers - geräucherter Hering
11.plaice - Scholle
12.furtive - verstohlen
13.tenner - Zehnpfundschein
14.garments - Kleidungsstücke
15.to batter - zerschlagen
1. What is it that May likes most about life before the eighties?
2. Corner shops vs. 'gigamarts'. What are their advantages and disadvantages respectively?
3. Characterize May from what you can read in this excerpt?
4. Do you think that British people living in the 1950s and 60s were happier than they are today?