Phillips (Dancing in the Dark, 2005, etc.) mixes fact and fiction to examine the sad fates of three very different men of color in England.
Francis Barber, more son than servant to Dr. Samuel Johnson, was one of the best-known black men in London in the 18th century. In Phillips’s first piece (“Dr. Johnson’s Watch”), the unnamed narrator rides in the same coach as Barber, the Doctor’s principal legatee, to the great man’s funeral. Sixteen years later, the narrator, by now a retired financier, travels to Lichfield, Johnson’s hometown, to find Barber’s white wife living in poverty and Barber on his deathbed in a grim infirmary; communication is minimal. Barber’s squandering of his legacy has been well-documented, and Phillips adds no new insights. The second, much longer piece, “Made in Wales,” is a workmanlike third-person account of the life of Randolph Turpin, the mixed-race British boxer whose career highlight was his 1951 defeat of Sugar Ray Robinson to become world middleweight champion. Turpin held the title for 64 days before Robinson reclaimed it at their New York rematch. From there it was mostly downhill for Turpin: woman troubles, money troubles, bankruptcy and suicide at 38. The last piece, “Northern Lights,” is the harrowing story of David Oluwale, a Nigerian stowaway who wound up in Leeds in Yorkshire in 1949. (Phillips’s family emigrated from the Caribbean to Leeds, where the author was raised.) Phillips uses some seven different and presumably invented narrators for his portrait of Oluwale; they track his deterioration, but the man remains an enigma, and the summaries of the city’s history are obtrusive. The Nigerian was a gentle loner whose homelessness made him the target of two rogue cops, who caused his death by drowning and were convicted on assault charges. In death Oluwale’s name became a rallying cry for activists.
On balance, Phillips’s fictional touches do not help illuminate the issues of race and identity, which he has dealt with better elsewhere.