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Shelley Harris

About The Author

Shelley HarrisShelley Harris was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1967, to a South African mother and a British father. She left South Africa in 1973 because of her family's opposition to apartheid, and moved to Flackwell Heath in Buckinghamshire.

After taking a degree in English at Southampton University, followed by an MA in English and History at Reading, she worked as a local reporter on the Maidenhead Advertiser, specialising in film reviews. She lived in Paris for a year, after which she spent five years teaching English and Media in secondary schools. When she's not writing, Shelley volunteers at her local Oxfam bookshop.

In April 2010, she participated in authonomy Live at the York Writing Festival, and found a number of agents very keen to read the manuscript of Jubilee, the novel that she'd been working on for six years. This rapidly led to a two-book publishing deal with Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Jubilee by Shelley harrisJubilee opens on the day of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. At a street party bedecked with Union Flag bunting, a photographer takes a picture of the revellers that features a young Asian boy, staring intently into the camera, at its centre. The photograph becomes iconic, a symbol of a new multicultural Britain.

Thirty years later, Satish, by now a respected cardiologist, is contacted by the photographer who wants to bring the original participants together again to restage it. But what really happened that day changed the course of Satish's life and the reunion will uncover painful secrets.

In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Shelley talks about the advice she received from an editorial assessment agency, witnessing racism in Britain after leaving apartheid South Africa behind and dressing up in Crimplene for the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

 

Questions & Answers

The book centres on an iconic photograph, taken during the Queen's Silver Jubilee during 1977, which is taken to represent Britain's new multiculturalism. Was there an original image that inspired the idea?

There was, but ironically it wasn't of the Jubilee - that came later. Instead, it was a family photograph of my dad when he was a kid, at a VE Day street party. It's been up for years in my parents' house, so I was very familiar with it, but the 'click' came when I looked at it afresh one day: there was my dad, and there was his brother, both glum as anything. No grandad - of course - because he was away at the war. I started thinking how interesting it was that you might look at a street party image and believe you know everything about it, because you know about the national moment it commemorates. But I realised I knew very little about what was really going on for Dad and John, and nothing at all about the other kids in that picture: what kind of war they'd had, what - and who - they might have lost.

I got really fascinated with the idea of a small community, with its private relationships, its secrets and lies, thrown together for a very public celebration. It didn't take long to decide I'd set it during my generation's own great street party: the Silver Jubilee. That moment in 1977 was a pivotal one - so much was changing in our culture: the way we saw the monarchy, the way we defined ourselves. Right at the centre of this celebration of Britishness I placed Satish, a new Briton; his cohort of immigrants had come here from Uganda with £55 and nothing else. They would go on to be some of the most successful newcomers this country has ever seen.

Why has Satish kept his childhood experiences from his wife?

Well, there are two things operating here, I think. Satish wants a fresh start, and he can do that with Maya. He just needs a little subterfuge, a little economy with the truth. For a long time he does it very successfully, building himself an enviable life - until the photographer arranges a reunion photograph thirty years on, and everything is threatened.

There's another reason for Satish's secrecy, though and, without giving away too much of the book, it has to do with how we choose to be perceived. In large part, I think you can define yourself in certain ways - as lucky or unlucky, as a victim or a survivor - and other people will fall in with that definition. I think Satish controls what people know about him, so that he can control how he is regarded. If that is to work it has to be comprehensive, which means that even Maya cannot know the whole truth.

Satish, as a boy, seems to have little trouble making white friends. Do you think children are generally more tolerant of ethnic diversity than their parents?

Definitely, and it's true across all kinds of diversity. Kids just don't care about differences in ethnicity, or religion, or sexual orientation unless they've been taught to. I remember some of my childhood friends telling me about the racist things their dads (bizarrely, it was usually the dads) would say, and of course those kids just aped their parents' views. Grown-ups are the problem: no doubt about it.

How important is Satish's relationship with his father to the way he grows up?

Satish wants to please his father and - in some measure - to protect him. Those things do shape the way he grows up, but I actually think his focus lies elsewhere. When you're a kid in a new culture, a kind of social survival instinct takes over; what you do is to observe and learn and copy, all the time. You store away the tiny details which will mark you out as foreign if you get them wrong. This is what I did when I came to Britain, and this is Satish's driving principle too; he wants to fit in. Until Jubilee Day everything - even his family - is secondary to that.

Your family originally left South Africa when you were six because of their opposition to the apartheid regime. Do you feel this has given you a different perspective on race relations in Britain?

I'm absolutely certain of it. I remember coming here in the seventies, and my Mom fuming because of all the flack she'd get for being South African, when she could see perfectly well that Britain's house was not in order. The institutional racism of Apartheid was obviously unique: people's rights, liberties and safety were comprehensively stripped from them, but here in the mid-seventies the National Front was on the rise, and even outside their ranks bigotry was commonplace.

Britain is full of contradictions, though. There is so much we have to raise our hands to as a nation, so many terrible episodes and shameful attitudes. But we are also a naturally multicultural country - it's one of the reasons I love living here. We have one of the highest rates of mixed marriage in the world, our capital is the most cosmopolitan on earth, and, as any student of history knows, we are all incomers. In Jubilee I've tried to explore both those aspects of Britishness; Satish has to go through a lot as a child, but in adulthood he is a pillar of British society.

Before finding a publisher, you received feedback from an editorial assessment service. How did they help you hone your book?

They were excellent, and in my case that excellence lay in their ability to help me explore the way in which I wanted to tell my story. The core of Jubilee has remained unchanged right from the start, but there were some pretty crucial decisions to be made about how to structure the narrative. The consultancy was able to give a fresh perspective on this, allowing me to shape it in a way which let the story flourish.

Once you're published, these are exactly the kind of conversations you have with your agent or editor; a good literary consultancy allows you to have them before that, on your journey to publication.

What are your memories of the Silver Jubilee in 1977?

I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but we didn't have a street party. I dressed up in yellow Crimplene and a Union Jack topper on the day, but my main memories are of the weeks before the Jubilee. My mom and brother went back to South Africa to visit, and my dad needed to travel for his work so he took me with him, on a tour round northern England. Wherever we went, I saw Union Jacks in abundance: in the windows of shops and houses and cars, being sold at petrol stations, and slapped on every imaginable product in the supermarket. There was a sort of frenzied patriotism. I don't think it will ever be that way again: we're too savvy now, and too democratised. But it's the Diamond Jubilee later this year, and I may be proven wrong; we shall see.

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