Black by Design: A 2-tone Memoir by Pauline Black

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Black by Design: A 2-tone Memoir by Pauline Black

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The memoirs of the lead vocalist with The Selecter, who has also pursued a successful career in acting and broadcasting.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846687907

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As the front cover of this volume of reminiscences reminds us, Pauline Black is remembered first and foremost for fronting The Selecter, one of the few 2-Tone ska bands to enjoy fleeting chart success at the end of the 1970s. Yet reading this reminds us that that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Born in 1953 to Anglo-Jamaican and Nigerian parents, Pauline was adopted by a white working-class family in Romford. For a black girl to grow up in a predominantly white community at that time was tough, and she suffered more than her share of racist insults, the most hilarious of which she thought was 'jungle bunny'. As she points out, surely the fools who used this one had watched enough wildlife programmes on TV to realise that rabbits didn't live in the jungle? Historical documentaries on the small screen about the fate of the Jews during World War II were a chilling ever-present reminder that to be 'different' – in other worlds, black or Jewish - could lead to bad things happening.

At the tender age of ten she began to become aware of the wider world around her with the 'I have a dream' speech of Martin Luther King and the assassination of President Kennedy shortly afterwards. Also very much part of her upbringing, or perhaps education, were a love of music as Tamla Motown and the songs of Bob Dylan became popular in Britain, while Millie Small, the first Jamaican woman singer to have a British hit record, was also a role model. Her true vocation soon became music, interrupted by a period of studies at university in Coventry and working as a hospital radiographer by day while singing and playing guitar in folk clubs by night. When she got together with like-minded friends to form The Selecter, she was the only member with a steady job – one which she had to resign with some misgivings when the notoriously fickle world of music took over.

The band's history was similar to that of many others. There was the initial euphoria of success with an instant Top 10 hit, differences between members, disillusion with success, and bickering in the studio. Gigs were targeted by neo-Nazi groups, and a misconstrued anti-violence single was banned by the BBC. Within two years she had had enough; I jumped ship and promptly found myself floundering in deep water. The group disbanded and she reached the nadir when she found herself presenting a 'hideous' children's TV quiz programme a year later.

Thankfully she soon found a better vehicle for her talents with acting on TV and stage, including a well-acclaimed performance as jazz singer Billie Holiday in 'All Or Nothing At All', which won her an award. What goes around comes around, and several years later The Selecter reformed – though, as is so often the case, not without a battle between different camps of members from the old days, both fighting for ownership of the name. Pauline won.

Yet surely the most remarkable part of this book is her search for self, or more specifically her biological parents. Beginning with the phone directory, after much persistence she tracked her true mother down in Australia, and after 42 years finally met her. The happy end of her quest makes a richly emotional, heartwarming conclusion to this book.

Many books of this nature are in part showbiz stories, of the rise and fall of a life spent briefly in the spotlight before the big crash. Yet this is much more, especially in her telling what it is like to be British yet black in a society when such things mattered, even to the point of once being arrested and interrogated at the police station on suspicion of shoplifting, simply because officers were looking for 'any young black female'. For much of her younger life she was conscious of those in authority who seemingly did not regard her as 'one of us', and once Britain slowly came to terms with its multiculturalism, the desperate search for her identity took over. Her autobiography is not just another musical memoir, but a genuinely very inspiring read.

Our thanks to Serpent's Tail for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoy this, may we also recommend Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor, another memoir written from a similar perspective; or Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray, about the trials and tribulations of another band whose career in some ways mirrored that of The Selecter.

Buy Black by Design: A 2-tone Memoir by Pauline Black at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Black by Design: A 2-tone Memoir by Pauline Black at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Black by Design: A 2-tone Memoir by Pauline Black at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Black by Design: A 2-tone Memoir by Pauline Black at Amazon.com.


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