Caryl Phillips: A writer’s return to the city that has risen anew from the past

Nick Ahad interviews Caryl Phillips for the Yorkshire Post.

Caryl Phillips can sense something in the air.

At 52, the writer has been around long enough to recognise a literary movement, particularly when he’s part of it.
“I am definitely aware that I am part of something,” says Phillips from his New York home. “It happened in the 1980s when I found myself being spoken about alongside Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and others in the context that we were writers and colonial outsiders. We all knew each other, but we didn’t consider ourselves as some kind of group. We did, however, recognise that something was going on.
“I detect something similar in the air now.”
The feeling of déjà vu is because Phillips is now being referred to as part of a new generation of writers who are inspired by the city of Leeds and will be returning to home territory on Thursday to discuss the new movement with Anthony Clavane, author of Promised Land.
Born in St Kitts, Phillips’s family moved to Leeds when he was four months old. An exceptionally bright youngster, he studied at Oxford, before embarking on a literary career which has seen him acclaimed as a novelist, screenwriter and playwright. In recent years he has also taken up a post at Yale University.
He now fits his teaching duties alongside his own writing and lecturing at Oxford, where he is a visiting professor, and a huge number of other appearances, including the event with Clavane, a Leeds contemporary and friend, whose recent book Promised Land, has been highly praised.
His book concerns itself with Leeds United, which immediately endears it to Phillips, a die hard LUFC fan, but it also examines two other strands – the literary heritage of the city and the Jewish immigration into Leeds and how that has defined it.
As a young black boy growing up in Leeds, Phillips – Caz to his friends – has been outspoken about the racism he experienced, particularly at school. A saviour for Phillips came in the shape of a teacher who at the time the author remembers had a soft spot for him. He later discovered the teacher’s Jewish heritage.
“His name was Ernest Stern. I never understood why he spent so much time on me, encouraging me. He always went out of his way to remind me that I had a responsibility as a boy from the Caribbean and coming here to Leeds,” says Phillips.
“I later found out he was a leader of the Jewish community, a very important member, and I think it was then that I realised he had encouraged me because he understood what it was to be an immigrant in this city.”
The sense of the outsider is strong in Phillips’ work and it is one that links his writing with Clavane’s. “I grew up very much aware of this sort of fortress mentality to the city and that didn’t just come out of the feelings around the football team,” he says.
“It was a very loathed place in the 1970s, it was seen as unhip, dark, dangerous place. If you grow up somewhere which is seen in such a way,
and if that place has nourished you, then you develop this sense of the fortress mentality.”
Leeds, however, has changed. Phillips, who still makes regular trips to the city, says he sees a new city growing out of the one he understood growing up, a place where his London-based literary agent comes for weekend trips.
“I think writers are trying to make sense of that. This place that was not sexy suddenly has people arriving on the train for the weekend and heading into Malmaison with their designer luggage and bottles of water,” says Phillips.
“How do you integrate in your head the image of Leeds as the place where the Ripper stalked, with this gleaming new Leeds by the riverside?
“There is a new dynamism in the city which I think young writers – and writers who are unpublished that we have never heard of – are trying to make sense of.”
Phillips might attempt to make more sense of this when he and Clavane examine the issue on Thursday.

The Promised Land? With Caryl Phillips and Anthony Clavane, October 21, 6.30pm to 8.30pm, Old Broadcasting House, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds. Tickets are free on the door

For the original report go to

One thought on “Caryl Phillips: A writer’s return to the city that has risen anew from the past

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