Life & Culture

The Selecter's Pauline Black: ‘I was pleased when I found out my mother was Jewish’

Elisa Bray discusses knife crime, racism and the trials of adoption with the singer ahead of her band’s support slot with Blur at Wembley stadium on Sunday and a string of festival shows this summer


The Selecter - Paris 2023 by Dean Chalkley

"I’m permanently cross,” says Pauline Black, with a chuckle that fortunately suggests otherwise. A pioneer of the early-1980s 2 Tone ska movement as singer of The Selecter, Black is talking about the themes that inspired the Coventry band’s latest album: knife crime, fake news, keyboard warriors, the waste of war. It’s enough to make anyone angry.

And yet, this album was written pre-pandemic, long before the Ukraine invasion. “It was strangely prescient,” she says. “The same things keep coming up in the news, and you can relate them all back to many of those songs.”

It started with a voice recording on her phone, of her singing the chorus for Mama’s So Blue, a tribute to the mothers who have lost children to knife crime.

And there are many. Official statistics reveal that 99 under-25s in England and Wales were stabbed to death in the 12 months to March 2022, and 13 of those were younger than 16.

The album’s title, Human Algebra, followed, because “it seemed to sum up the mess we were in somehow, but also the solution to that mess. Algebra is about finding the unknown.”

Black hoped that if she followed this thought, “we might get somewhere”, and focused her attention on the victims.

“It’s [knife crime] leaving behind this huge crater of families which are completely decimated, and particularly mothers,” she says, with measured anger creeping in. “As a society, we’re sitting here looking at a section of our youth which has no other recourse to justice, other than arming themselves with knives.

“I just feel like we have to make some inroads into this and get some kind of solution amongst humanity otherwise it’s going to get worse and worse.

"The art of any kind of diplomacy, of being able to talk to each other, all that is becoming more and more fragmented with social media.”

The singer for the multi-racial band, signed alongside the Specials and Madness to the anti-racist 2 Tone label set up by the Specials’ Jerry Dammers in the late 1970s, has seen all their albums as conversation starters since the release of their 1980-debut Too Much Pressure.

“If you’re not having the conversation, if you’re not seeing change in your world, what’s the point in producing music and saying the same things that have always been said?” she says.

On Sunday, Black will support Blur at Wembley with The Selecter, and the band are taking their hits including On My Radio and Missing Words across this summer’s festival circuit, from Cornwall’s The Great Estate to Winchester’s Mucky Weekender.

Black turns 70 this year, and her life has been multi-faceted. Before the band took off in 1979, she had worked as a hospital radiographer, and when they split up for a decade, she became a television presenter and an actor, appearing in series such as The Bill.

Brought up as Pauline Vickers in Essex by adoptive white middle-class parents, Black knew from the age of four that her father was Nigerian and her mother was from Dagenham.

The only black child at her school, she was introduced to ska by, ironically, a group of skinheads.

“There were these young people who had a very different style of dress, a set style of haircut, and this great music that they embraced from the Caribbean,” she remembers. “And I guess because I was the only black kid and a little bit like their mascot, I was invited to join them.”

With racism “absolutely rife” during her childhood, Black’s abiding memory of growing up is “an otherness”.

Experiences of racism were numerous — including from her own family. Her mother always introduced her as her “adopted daughter”, the tagline explaining Pauline’s different colour, and, crucially, that she hadn’t slept with a black man. “That was the underlying subtext of all this,” says Black.

She was turned away from dance class, and Brownies. “I thought that I was a shoo-in being the colour that I am; the uniform was wonderful on me,” she says wryly.

“I couldn’t wait. But my mother had a conversation with the woman in charge and came out in absolute high dudgeon and grabbed my hand, dragged me off and said, ‘Well, we won’t be going back there again.’”

Later, she heard her mother telling her father that the woman had asked why she hadn’t adopted “one of our own”. So she was taken to piano lessons. “And I was good at that.”

At 42 she discovered her birth mother was Jewish. Despite her tricky upbringing, she waited until her adoptive mother had died to look up her birth mother, Eileen Magnus.

Trawling through the phone book, she quickly discovered that Magnus was a Jewish name, and was “curiously pleased” to discover her roots.

It reminded her of the first boy she had a crush on, who was the only Jewish child at the school. “Maybe I had concurrency with him because of that,” she says. “I used to think that it must be so good to know that you belong to something. I suppose you are othered by virtue of everything else, but you belong to something.”

Black was “fully on board” for thinking about what this new facet to her identity meant, the fact that there was an “even more interesting mix going on”.

Eventually, she got through to her aunt, who provided her mother’s number and address in Australia and she wrote to her the following morning. Within a week, she had a phone call, with the opening word “Belinda” — her birth name — and they met at Sydney Airport weeks later.

“She just seemed absolutely larger than life,” she recalls. “She enveloped me. There was no mistake, she was Jewish.”

In Australia, she had hoped to get to know her birth mother quietly, but she discovered that there was an entire extended family desperate to meet her, including a stepfather, sister and brother — and they were all waiting in the garden at her mother’s house.

“So that took a lot of getting over. It was emotionally a huge, huge upheaval.”

She also discovered that her new Jewish side of the family had become Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I wasn’t best pleased about that,” says Black. “I’m a great believer in Darwinism.”

The mother and daughter wrote to each other from 1996 until 2011, when Eileen had a stroke. Before then, Black would take The Selecter to Australia to enable Eileen to see the band live.

A Sydney show in 2011 was the last time that she saw her mother in full strength.
It was only years later, when fully out of the maelstrom of feelings — and after Eileen’s death from cancer in 2020 — that Black could process the heavy emotions.

Sadly, the pandemic meant that she couldn’t go to see her, and Eileen didn’t get a proper funeral.

“So it was a bit like never having closure on her life. But do I regret it? Absolutely not. It was a wonderful thing to find out. And it was a wonderful thing to have her in my life for 24 years.”

Although Black chose not to pursue Judaism as a way of life, what she most admires and identifies with are the values of inclusivity, and love of music.

“I haven’t yet met a Jewish family that doesn’t love music,” she says. “And that brings people together more than anything.”

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