'Maxi Hayles: Taking it to the Max'. Book Review


To read the life story of Maxi Hayles is to better understand how the dark and many forces of racism in the UK can, in no small measure not only define an individual's life, but also a whole community's.

The story of Maxi Hayles, 'Taking it to the Max', jam-packed into 116 pages, is beautifully poignant, sometimes utterly sad, but most important of all a historical snapshot of how a man, his family, and more broadly speaking, Britain's Caribbean communities have had to navigate living in a country that too often sees them as less than.

To most people today, particularly in the West Midlands, Maxi Hayles is known as a Black British Civil Rights leader. In Birmingham for example, for the last 30 years or so, he has been the 'go to man', when you want someone to defend you against racial discrimination and or seek justice after a racial attack. For most of his adult life, therefore, Hayles has dedicated his life to fight: Fight for racial justice, for respect and dignity to a people he feels immensely proud to belong to. But to define this man in such a narrow, albeit proud definition doesn't even begin to see who he really is. To better understand this often complicated character, and to some extent the Windrush generation, you have to go back to his childhood in Jamaica.

Although his childhood was hardly a 'walk in the park', - at times it was harrowing and even brutal - you do get a sense that early life in the Jamaica forged the man that was to be. It wasn't just the foundation for a fighter for human rights, but also the making of a deeply sensitive man, who would need about the harsh realities of life quickly, and a man who loved and respected his mother deeply. Of the entire book I enjoyed this section the most. You could smell, feel and taste the Caribbean of the 50's through the eyes of the young Hayles.

Fittingly titled, 'Mum and I', the chapter begins with Hayle's early childhood which is characterized by not having his father around. None-the-less being brought up by his mother , who he clearly adored, along with grandparents and other relatives with the young boy a firm footing in life. In those days we are told that a strict upbringing was the norm, but equally he was able to enjoy the open natural playground that Jamaica had to offer:

"In rural Jamaica during mango season Ken -his best friend- and I would delight in rising early to go find these sweet and delicious fruits. There was a stream close to where we lived and we also went to find avocados and try and catch crayfish and shrimp hiding under the rocks. We also made slingshot and killed bird and cooked them over the open fire. We made our own entertainment, with the limb of the coconut tree riding on down a steep hill shrieking with laughter and entertainment."

These magical childhood moments where juxtaposed with horror stories as his Mum would be beaten by her new lover, and in response members of her family would confront the man in what Hayles described as a 'High noon' moment, not with guns but with Jamaican bush machetes.

What is particularly clear though, throughout all this time in Jamaica, Hayles is a Black child /youth in a country of mostly Black people. And that's important, because it not until his mother decides to do what many Jamaicans did in the 50's and 60's -send their children to 'the mother country', England and join other relatives-, that his daily life dramatically changes as he is forced to confront racism almost on a daily basis.

So at tender age of 16 the boy who adored his mother so dearly was forced to say goodbye to her, and embark on a life in the freezing UK, and live with his father and his family who he barely knew.

In the book Hayles exquisitely captures the drama of cold, at times hostile white Britain, whilst navigating through a family minefield.

But he also shows how he is forced to quickly grow from a boy to man, with a number of incidents that would come to define what Hayles was to become.

The first incident as a young man in Birmingham, where some of his family lived , was with a bus driver who had short changed him. The defiant Hayles stood his ground. The police were called, but undeterred the young man remained firm. In the end the Police officer weighed up the situation and concluded that Hayles was not only right, but he knew his rights too.

Some months later he had another altercation, this time with his landlord who was trying to kick him and his new wife out of their home. Once again Hayles was having none of it. And by a quirk of fate the same police officer who had previously dealt with the bus situation was called upon again. The police officer quickly pulled the landlord over to one side and explained to him that this was a futile fight because this man - Hayles - absolutely knew all his rights, and he was sure you couldn't evict him.

From there the human rights fighter was born, and boy did he have to fight.

He spent years trying to get out of menial factory work by studying to be a social worker but was constantly thwarted by the institutions. The failure to pass the necessary tests, which he describes as blatant racism, would have crushed a lesser man, but not Hayles. He did eventually get a job as youth worker, but once again felt the institutional bias that would repeatedly pass him over for any promotion. He tells the story of often training juniors who would then become his manager as they rose through the ranks whilst he stayed rooted.

When he was the victim of racism at work he took them, on and usually won but over a 22 year period it seems the only people who really appreciated him where the young people he was helping and not his colleagues at work.

Parallel to his work through various organizations Hayle's real passion blossomed as a race equality national and global leader. There wasn't' a battle he wouldn't take on from the unlawful killing of Anton Manning, to the racist attack of Clive Forbes. Hayles was there lobbying, campaigning, demanding justice.

During his many years campaigning Hayles would find himself in South Africa, for the UN Durban Summit on Race, or at Downing St advising the Prime Minister Tony Blair, but most importantly for Hayles was his work in the community, fighting, inspiring demanding justice. In 2008 a fellow Civil Rights Icon, Rev Jesse Jackson, fittingly awarded him a lifetime achievement award during his UK visit.

When you read between the lines of Maxie Hayles Autobiography 'Taking it to the Max', you get a sense of the good Christian - the church plays a big part of his life- seeking to serve others.

For some reading this book they may conclude it is rather sad that a life can be so defined by racial discrimination, but not for Maxi Hayles. Knowing him as I do, I know that he feels immensely proud that his life has had great meaning not to his family-he'll talk all day and all night about the achievements of his children, -but to the Black community and wider society.

In writing his story he also wants to put on the grand canvas, our story, the story of dignity through struggle.

My own plea is that many of us read this book, but also a thank you and plea to Maxi Hayles: Can you write a book just about you time in Jamaica, it would surely make a great book just by itself?

Simon Woolley

To order a copy of the book contact Maxie Hayles. E: [email protected] or T: 07956 141 554.