The Life and Times of a Very British Man

by Kamal Ahmed

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LoveReading Expert Review of The Life and Times of a Very British Man

One day I hope to meet Kamal Ahmed and explain to him how, as I reached the end of this book, I realised a complete stranger had become a friend. I hope it does the same for you. I recommend it.

The name Kamal Ahmed wasn’t familiar to me when I was first introduced to this book. It should have been. In my defence, I would argue that, as I watch little television, I may be forgiven. The case against me, however, would certainly point out that since one of my favourite programmes is BBC News – where Kamal has, since 2016, regularly appeared in his role as Economics Editor – I really ought to have recognised him. Hopefully, I will be forgiven.

Kamal Ahmed is a first generation descendent of a Sudanese immigrant father. I am third generation, through my grandmother’s family who come from South Africa – they were Xhosa and, I learned many years ago, from the same tribe as Nelson Mandela. And so, it was with an ever-increasing sense of déjà vu that I became absorbed by this book. 

Through a series of personal anecdotes, political comment and astute observations, The Life and Times of a Very British Man makes a compelling case for a new debate about what is it to be British, what makes us who we are and how we view those we consider to be ‘others’.

I don’t use the word ‘absorbed’ lightly. Kamal is a talented writer, something apparent from the very first pages. He uses language skilfully, not so much to impress, but to present his arguments logically and passionately. He is perceptive, reasoning and persuasive. And he is absolutely right as he asks the reader to consider what it is that makes us British?

Kamal Ahmed. Not a terribly British name is it?  That antithesis is, perhaps, something that makes the title of this work so germane. What is it to be British? To quote the author, he likes National Trust Houses, the Specials, Victoria sponge cake and double-cooked chips. What is it that makes us feel British?

At times disturbing, at times amusing, The Life and Times of a Very British Man asks searching questions about us, our country and our attitude to change. 

One day I hope to meet Kamal Ahmed and explain to him how, as I reached the end of this book, I realised a complete stranger had become a friend. I hope it does the same for you. I recommend it.

Matt Johnson

The Life and Times of a Very British Man Synopsis

'Full of charm' GUARDIAN 'An account of what being British means' i 'Captures a country in transition ... You can't fail to be moved' THE TIMES Kamal Ahmed's childhood was very 'British' in every way - except for the fact that he was brown. Half English, half Sudanese, he was raised at a time when being mixed-race meant being told to go home, even when you were born just down the road. 'Ahmed grew up as a mixed-race kid in west London in the seventies, and his book charts the progress (sometimes slow and now without a few setbacks along the way) that our country has made on race issues since then. Brilliant' Rohan Silva, Evening Standard

About This Edition

ISBN: 9781408889244
Publication date: 2nd May 2019
Author: Kamal Ahmed
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Format: Paperback
Pagination: 352 pages
Primary Genre Biographies & Autobiographies
Other Genres:
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The Life and Times of a Very British Man Reader Reviews

In addition to our Lovereading expert opinion some of our Reader Review Panel were also lucky enough to read and review this title.

This is a wonderful heartfelt read, one that will make the reader laugh out loud, and question the way that we as a nation (well some of us) haven't changed, How sad is that?

Every now and again, a book comes along that makes you question the way you think, and The Life and Times of a Very British Man by Kamal Ahmed is one of them.
Kamal is a well know face on the BBC, born in Ealing, he is of mixed race, and had a very British childhood, played the same games you or I did, though only difference is that Kamal was born in the 1960s and he as he puts it is "brown" or as it was then called half-caste.

As a child, he knows first hand of the stigma his mother must have had to endure, the vile names that were branded about, and the way people crossed the street. 
The racial prejudice in the 1960s is something we as a nation should re-look at. Kamal had a paper round as a child, and the couple who owned the shop knew him as Neil, as this in his words was better than Camel.

My mum was of mixed race, and to be honest, I never really thought about it. Yes being olive skinned I was called names as a child. These names were both offensive and innacurate - see how the mentality of these racist idiots never changes (I was born in the 60s).

This is a wonderful heartfelt read, one that will make the reader laugh out loud, and question the way that we as a nation (well some of us) haven't changed, How sad is that? When you next see Kamal on TV, think about the man, not his colour, Kamal works for the BBC, Not bad for a brown lad called Neil!!

Angela Rhodes

A thought-provoking examination of what it means to be a British and accepted in the UK today.

Kamal Ahmed is a well-known face on British TV, as Economics Editor at the BBC. This book tells the story of his upbringing in 1970s London as the son of a Sudanese doctor and a white female school teacher from Yorkshire. The book is ultimately an examination of race and acceptance in Britain, informed by Ahmed’s experience as a child of a mixed-race couple and by political analysis from a number of sources, including an essay on Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech.

I learnt from and sympathised with much of Ahmed’s experiences and views. I knew of Powell’s speech but this taught me much more. Perhaps I was surprised by Ahmed’s very ordinary “Britishness” and appreciation of much of the British way of life. Or perhaps I wasn’t because as the son of professional, educated people with a good education and high profile career of his own and the fact that he was brought up largely by his mother and his extended living Yorkshire family, his experiences may not be entirely representative, or at least a bit watered down. But then, on the other hand, the book no doubt requires someone with that standard of education and outlook to be written in the first place. 

I much preferred the personal recollections and the less academic reports of situations and incidents to the in-depth state of the nation examination, which at times lost me and at others dragged. I particularly admired his Mum and her approach. Again, I could see his point of view about the continuing “otherness” of ethnic minorities, the prejudice and inequality faced and the state ineptitude when dealing with racism, of which Ahmed used several high profile examples, such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Quite appalling. 

However, although the author did point out that racism is not peculiar to Britain, or to America, or indeed other European countries, and as an example described the racial tensions in his father’s home country of Sudan between the ”superior” Arabs in the north and the black people in the south, I did feel the argument was pretty weighted. Concerns about immigration, graphically illustrated by the Brexit situation were barely addressed other than stressing the advantages or reducing it to a “you’ll be sorry” verdict. Additionally, although newly published, and the book did major on state endorsed racialism, more recent events of police turning a blind eye or failing to act because of the fear of being branded racist over the Asian grooming and abuse of young white girls in Rotherham and other major UK cities was never mentioned and is surely something that needs to be addressed if only to make the argument a little more rounded.

Sharon Wood

A well informed and entertaining look at life for immigrants in Britain over the years, and the changes made.

What sounded like a rather dry read turned into one of the most interesting and informative books about modern times.

Having seen Kamal Ahmed on television news, doing an efficient job, I had not given much thought to his background, or those of various people brought up in Britain in similar circumstances. But this book is not all about him, more about the changes regarding foreigners that have been brought about over the years by many factors. Events involving race and attitudes mostly from the 70s are covered in a different way. Achievements expected then would not be tolerated today, nor the language used. Historic events involving many people and countries have contributed to changes. Some areas of Britain were very accepting of ethnic minorities whatever their colour and background, others were not. Now even forms have been changed to suit all ethnic backgrounds. I enjoyed this entertaining book and feel I have learned so much from it.

Jan Kirkcaldy

A very thought provoking and interesting read about life in Britain for a British born "non-white". Kamal Ahmed has laid his thoughts and feelings out for all to see, and hopefully understand, what it's like to be different in your own country.

This book is an autobiography about growing up as a coloured British citizen. Kamal Ahmed tells how different he felt from the rest of the "white British" and the difficulties he faced, and presumably still faces today.

It is also a book about the politics throughout his growing up, primarily related to race and prejudice. It is an interesting read, but at times rather heavy, especially where politics are concerned. I found myself having to re-read sections just to get a better understanding. He uses very long sentences and digresses within these sentences, so it requires quite a bit of effort to follow at times. I think a basic knowledge of the politics of the time would enable the reader to follow the book more easily.

The actual life story is interesting, and I especially enjoyed reading about his visit to Sudan, and the book did make me stop and think about life in Britain for British born "non-whites". However, this book was not my ideal read, I think it's a book to take in slowly. For those interested in current British racial society, it provides an insight into how prejudices have affected the choices and opportunities for "non-whites".

Overall, although I struggled with some parts of the book, it gave me food for thought, and I would certainly read parts of it again at a leisurely pace.

christine woolfenden

Perfectly pitched in terms of tone with a combination of anecdote, social, political and economic commentary both from the 70's and the present day. Watch the YouTube video when instructed!

I would not normally have picked to read a book like this, but I'm so glad that I did. It is perfectly pitched in terms of tone, neither patronising or jargon-filled. There is a combination of anecdote and social commentary aside political and economic explanations.

I did find towards the end I struggled a bit to keep on track, but not to the detriment of the flow of the narrative. As a white, female of the same age, I wondered whether I would be able to connect with the story, but I found that I was smiling at familiar memories from my own childhood. The tone of the book was not accusatory and although it was impossible not to feel guilty at some of the behaviour of some people, at no time did I feel that any blame was attached to me.
And yes, I did put the book down and watch the YouTube video.

Lisa Lovell

This book is quiet and subtle in tone, however, it made myself and my husband talk openely about the issues Kamal brought up about identity and race. A thought-provoking read for everyone.

The Life and Times of a Very British Man is a story about Kamal Ahmed’s life who is half English, half Sudanese. It is also a quest to articulate and complete a personal identity by looking to the past for answers.

In this unique book, he takes his own experiences and widens them out to look at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today.

Covering everything from the police, education, and identity to politics, objectification and the far right, Kamal writes with elegance, each statement supported with his ideas even when confronting issues of race and class that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain's racialised empire.

Maisie Hoang

A very honest view of a life that faced racism throughout and a realism that racism isn’t as much in the past as you would hope.

Kamal gives us a very true and honest view of his life and the prejudices that he and his family have faced. The book takes us through their history and you see life from their view and how people have viewed them changing over time. What stands out to me was that we assume that prejudices are moving to be a thing of the past but they aren’t going fast enough. I found his story quite enlightening.

Cathy Small

Thought-provoking book about being both brown and British. Extremely, well-written and informative look at the complexity of life as an outsider in your own country. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing but well worth reading.

Kamal Ahmed is a Londoner with a mixed-race heritage which has literally coloured his experience of the world. As the son of a black Sudanese doctor and a white English teacher, Kamal has spent a lifetime managing the complexity, ambiguity and contradictions of being brown. His book provides a thought-provoking discourse on race, identity and what it means to be British. It encourages the reader to recognise and acknowledge the similarities, as well as the differences, between the ‘In-group’ and the Out-group’ and also to consider their own prejudices.

Kamal is a likeable, intelligent and talented writer who can effectively put across his point of view in a way that engenders empathy. I feel he does this most successfully in relation to the more ‘personal’ elements of his book, which I found more engaging than the heavily political sections.

Overall, despite the occasional sense of being lectured, I really enjoyed what was generally a positive and even humorous look at the life and times of a Very British man.

Lynne Manton

A fascinating insight into the author's reflections on growing up as a mixed race man in Britain. A perfect starting point for discussion or simply as an interesting and informative read.

This book would do well to feature on the PSHCE curriculum in senior schools.
Raised in London during the 70s, Kamal Ahmed has produced a quite fascinating insight into how his life as a half English/half Sudanese man has developed alongside the vacillating backdrop of an increasingly multicultural society in Great Britain.

He has chosen to recount snapshots of his family life alongside the ever-changing political and social ambience of modern Britain in a highly readable, yet all-embracing way and the melange works extremely successfully. Had this been written by a white political historian, its impact and integrity would not have been nearly as effective nor had had such impact.

A professional journalist, Ahmed writes with natural ease and his style has a refreshing and wise repartee, peppered with humour yet offering a gateway for discussion and reflection.

This is quite a unique and brave book in many ways and I feel that its influence will be far-reaching.

Val Rowe

Kamal Ahmed has a wonderfully engaging and easy-going writing style and it is shown to great effect in this book.

Kamal Ahmed has a wonderfully engaging and easy-going writing style and it is shown to great effect in The Life and Times of a Very British Man. He weaves the story of his family and his upbringing with the story of post World War 2 changes to British society.

He is the mixed-race son of an African father and British mother and his experience of Britain from the 1970s onwards was fascinating to me as I grew up at the same time with many of the same cultural highs and lows - but from a different background. As immigration begins to expand and people come from all over the world to settle in Britain he shows how it affected him as an individual and the wider community.

I enjoyed reading about his family and how he saw himself fitting in or not with those around him. His perspective was enlightening and really made think. Seeing events of the recent past from his point of view was an eye-opener. An excellent account that kept me enthralled.

Karen McIntosh

An interesting insight into the cultural and racial evolution of the past 50 years.

I thought that this would be a fairly regular autobiography, recounting tales of the authors experiences through life. This book does indeed recount much of this but is far more.

This is an opportunity to present views on the cultural evolution within Britain. How we view and have viewed race, religion and difference.

A recommended read for anyone who wishes to scratch deeper below the surface.

Neil Williams

Other editions of this book

ISBN: 9781408889244
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9781408889183
Publication date: 18/10/2018
Format: Hardback

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About Kamal Ahmed

Kamal Ahmed is Economics Editor of the BBC and one of Britain's most respected journalists. He joined the BBC in April 2014 as Business Editor after a twenty-year career in newspapers. He has worked for the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday and Daily Telegraph. He started his career in local newspapers in Scotland and subsequently worked for Scotland on Sunday. He has also served as Group Director of Communications for the Equality and Human Rights Commission and is a board member of the Media Trust. He lives in London.

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