Urban Messthetics

John Mullan

  • London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City by Sukhdev Sandhu
    Harper Perennial, 498 pp, £9.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 00 653214 4

Sukhdev Sandhu loves a certain vision of London. He finds it realised in the 1987 film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, scripted by Hanif Kureishi, especially the ‘extraordinary scene’ in which the screen is divided and three attractive couples ‘are all shown fucking’. Here is cinematic confirmation of the city as a place of unpredictable pairings and joyful miscegenation. ‘It’s a place of excess. An oasis of joy and gratuitous debauchery.’ The characters in the ‘sexual triptych’ have different racial origins and social status. ‘Collectively, they cover a cultural range the breadth of which can only ever be found in cities like London.’ Out in the suburbs (and presumably the provinces) sex happens behind ‘social screens’. Here it is ‘a dirty and impure celebration of chance, of difference – qualities that the metropolis itself represents’.

Was Sammy and Rosie Get Laid so joyful? Perhaps because I remember the film as gloomily and clumsily anti-Thatcherite, Sandhu seems to me to be trying to make it fit an idealised version of what he likes about London. He calls his book ‘a love letter to London’ and admits to ‘a soft spot for rhapsodical writers, who are not embarrassed to talk about having fun in the city’. And his accounts of books and films are invariably expressions of enthusiasm, celebrating the imaginative freedoms of urban life: for black and Asian writers, London is a place not of exile or alienation, but of ‘self-expansion’.

Sandhu’s story gets going in the 18th century. There were blacks in London before then, but he wants to ‘show how they have depicted the city, rather than how they have been depicted’. So we start with Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography was published in 1789, largely as a contribution to the movement for the abolition of the slave trade. Equiano, who lived in an interior region of what is now Nigeria, was kidnapped (by black traders) when he was 11 and taken into slavery. He was sold to a British naval captain and took part in many naval engagements during the Seven Years’ War. He bought his freedom in 1766 but continued to sail on merchant ships and voyages of exploration. In 1777 he settled in London, where he met leading abolitionists. His Interesting Narrative is taken up with his memories of Africa, his torments as a slave, his extraordinary travels and his eventual aspirations as a free man – which range from being a good Christian to learning the French horn.

Equiano stayed with the godly and genteel Guerin sisters in Greenwich, and took ‘many opportunities of seeing London, which I desired of all things’. He tried training as a hairdresser in the Haymarket, he went to evening classes to learn arithmetic, he worked for Dr Charles Irving in Pall Mall, ‘so celebrated for his successful experiments in making sea water fresh’. But he found metropolitan life expensive and soon went back to sea (later, he accompanied Dr Irving on a voyage of exploration to the Arctic). After a final trip to the Caribbean he settled in London again, yet apart from describing how he nearly drowned in the Thames, at the foot of Westminster Bridge while larking in the watermen’s wherries, he says little about the city. Equiano’s story is extraordinary, yet it hardly tells us how its author ‘imagined’ London.

Another former slave, Ignatius Sancho, wrote ‘the most astonishing chronicle of exilic London’ in the 18th century. Sancho had been born on a slave ship crossing to the West Indies. Soon orphaned, he was eventually given to three strict maiden ladies living in Greenwich. He was rescued from them by the Duke of Montagu, a neighbour and eccentric philanthropist, who made sure Sancho was educated (when he grew up he prided himself on his literary judgments). After the deaths of the duke and his wife, he was left a modest annuity and ended up running a grocery shop, apparently for affluent customers, in Charles Street, Westminster. Widely known after the publication of an exchange of letters between himself and Laurence Sterne, he was enough of a celebrity to sit for a portrait by Gainsborough.

In 1782, two years after his death, Sancho’s letters were published, by subscription. Almost 1200 people paid up, and the publication seems to have raised the large sum of £500 for his family (he had seven children). It was made all the more popular by its association with the abolitionist cause. Sandhu says that the letters ‘brim with comedy, familial devotion and an unembarrassed love of London’. The letters are certainly notable for the first two, but life in the city is again described rather little.

There are flashes of the place. Sancho is outraged by the sight of potato-sellers whipping their asses in the street; he visits the theatre to see John Henderson play Falstaff; he takes his family down the Thames to Vauxhall Gardens. He also studies the newspapers, intrigued most of all by the doings of high society. His outraged account of the Gordon Riots of 1780 (‘the worse than Negro barbarity of the populace’) seems culled from news reports rather than what he or his friends had seen. There is just one moment, in a letter to his friend and banker John Spink, when you hear the city outside.

– Gracious God! What’s the matter now? I was obliged to leave off – the shouts of the mob – the horrid clashing of swords – and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion – drew me to the door – when every one in the street was employed in shutting up shop. – It is now just five o’clock – the ballad-singers are exhausting their musical talents with the downfall of Popery, Sandwich, and North.

Soon Sancho is complaining that the government is ‘too relaxed’, and looks back to ‘the glorious time of George II and Pitt’s administration’. He sounds every inch the infuriated shopkeeper, appalled at every assault on property.

‘He saw the city not just as a place to live in or to make money,’ Sandhu claims, ‘but as a set of values, a tone of voice.’ Sancho’s letters are eloquent and sentimental, and Sandhu faithfully describes their Sternean code of philanthropy, but all this seems distant from the topic of his book. He tries persuading us that the Sternean dashes in Sancho’s letters ‘jolt and discombobulate’, enacting the ‘discontinuities’ of his life. ‘In geographic as well as in racial and biographical terms, Sancho always occupied an edgy, recessive status.’ The dashes, he believes, mock politeness and ‘an excessively linear, solipsistic way of thinking’. Surely this is overstated: the letters of Jane Austen or Lord Byron are quite as dash-sprinkled as Sancho’s.

Equiano’s autobiography and Sancho’s letters, both recently reprinted, are worth recovering, and have had a powerful influence on black British authors. Sandhu notes that several of the contemporary writers whose work he discusses are preoccupied with the 18th century. Caryl Phillips’s play The Shelter (1984) tells of ‘an elegant 18th-century West Country lady who finds herself marooned on a desert island with a slave whom she despises but is wholly reliant on’. David Dabydeen, whose 1987 book, Hogarth’s Blacks, was a study of ‘Images of Blacks in 18th-Century English Art’, based his novel A Harlot’s Progress (1999) on a startled black servant in one of Hogarth’s illustrations for The Harlot’s Progress. He becomes the former slave Mungo, an old man pressed for his recollections of slavery by Mr Pringle of the Abolition Committee, who is ghost-writing his story. The novel re-creates just what we do not get in the writings of Equiano and Sancho: the particularities of Georgian London, its tastes and smells, the ‘offal and ash’ of its streets.

Equiano turns up again in Fred D’Aguiar’s long poem Sweet Thames (1992). He is described as he sails up the Thames for the first time at the end of the 1750s. ‘So vehemently does he implore Equiano to "give me your hand, extend it/from your slaver’s time to mine,”’ Sandhu writes, ‘that he seems to think historical black London might be conjured up through force of desire alone.’ The words D’Aguiar puts into Equiano’s mouth have nothing of the cadence of his genteel Georgian sentences.

Sandhu notes that ‘there’s a certain roundedness and symmetry’ in arriving at the work of Phillips and D’Aguiar after exploring Equiano and Sancho. He keeps returning to the 18th century, though, enjoying the idea of a rough, chaotic urban world in which self-assertion was necessary and social mobility possible. He rates a novel by S.I. Martin, Incomparable World (1996), as ‘probably the best evocation of historic black London to date’. Set around Seven Dials in 1786, it represents ‘the base multitude that Sancho and Equiano sometimes sought to champion’. Sandhu writes of ‘the fidelity with which it portrays subterranean London’ as it follows its picaresque anti-hero, Buckram, through the alleys.

Martin portrays Samuel Johnson’s black servant, Francis Barber, as ‘a nouveau-riche social climber’, and both Sancho and Equiano are depicted in suitably unheroic fashion. Sandhu loves all this, though the passages he quotes don’t quite live up to his extravagant praise. But then Sandhu’s literary criticism is, as he has warned, celebratory. The best of London Calling is not its critical exposition of the work of black and Asian writers but the passages of social history.

He finds intriguing material in the travelogues written by Indians visiting London in the 19th century. Sandhu is excellent on their ‘excruciating politesse when describing their adventures in London’. They were happily dazzled by the metropolis (often literally: its wondrous gas or electric lighting was a frequent theme). As witnesses they seem both exact and entirely prejudiced. Their appalled testimonies as to the prevalence of drunkenness should be treated warily since they are also shocked by the immorality of the stage and the horrible sight of couples kissing under umbrellas in Hyde Park.

In his account of The Enigma of Arrival, Sandhu seems puzzled by V.S. Naipaul’s careful prose. This cold and elegant writer is never going to share his pleasure in life-giving urban confusion. It’s no surprise that Naipaul went to live in Wiltshire when his sentences are so neat: ‘His paragraphs, weighted and measured, never arc or spin or fizz out of control,’ Sandhu says, and his writing ‘lacks the vulgarity, the quickstep neologisms, the amped-up fidgetiness of the best London literature’. But Sandhu’s account of the journeys to London of educated men like Naipaul – ambitious and bookish immigrants to what they believed was a ‘cultural capital’ – is engaging. As he talks of the BBC’s importance to Caribbean and Asian writers in the 1940s and 1950s, we are shown a 1942 photo of those taking part in Voice, a BBC radio magazine programme for the Eastern Service. The Indian and Sri Lankan contributors are pictured with their white, establishment collaborators T.S. Eliot, George Orwell and William Empson. It’s no wonder that Portland Place seemed the world’s omphalos.

Sandhu also describes less bookish figures. There is his sketch, for instance, of the odd career of Michael de Freitas, aka Michael X, one of the great London rogues of the 1960s. After profiting as one of Rachman’s rent-collectors in the 1950s, he became a West London drugs baron and then, under his new name, head of the Racial Adjustment Action Society. Through this Black Power organisation he became a friend of Alexander Trocchi and William Burroughs, a host to Muhammad Ali and a recipient of largesse from Yoko Ono. The story of his rise and rise reads like satirical fiction. Eventually, having fled to Trinidad under the threat of prosecution in London, he had the English lover of one of his cronies killed as a ‘spy’. He was convicted and hanged in Port of Spain in 1975.

Often Sandhu has to try rather hard to find the literary companions to his historical narratives. He tells good stories about the London demi-monde before the Second World War, but for their literary depiction he has to go to Jean Rhys. Rhys said in her 1979 autobiography, Smile Please, that she ‘used to long so fiercely to be black’. This and her nostalgia for her Caribbean birthplace are enough for Sandhu: ‘Her racial background and her identification with black women make it appropriate to incorporate her in this study.’

The era after the docking of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948 is represented for Sandhu by the Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon, and especially by his novel The Lonely Londoners (1956). Selvon, who came to London in 1950 in his late twenties, had been a journalist in Trinidad but in London survived as a cleaner in bars and hotels. The Lonely Londoners is set in the Bayswater streets and flats he knew. The book is not exactly forgotten – it’s still in print, in the Longman Caribbean Writers series – but it is certainly worth recovering, a minor classic of comic characterisation and resourceful vernacular. Sandhu admires the skill with which Selvon invented for his speakers ‘a composite form of dialect, one that no West Indian immigrant actually spoke but which, nevertheless, conveys the tang of authentic speech’.

London comes alive in Selvon’s book not just as a place through which his displaced West Indians wander, but also as a force of their imagination (sometimes delusion), comically exploited. Lewis thinks his wife is cheating on him while he is at work, and asks the advice of the main character, Moses, ‘knowing that Moses is a man about London’. Moses cannot miss the chance to string him along.

‘How you mean,’ Moses say. ‘That is a regular thing in London. The wife leave the key under the milk bottle, and while you working out your tail in the factory, bags of fellars round by your house with the wife.’

Lonely Londoners catches the feckless charmers and chancers that anyone who arrives in the city, young and impecunious, is likely to come across. Someone like Captain, the ingeniously workshy Nigerian in his greenstripe suit who is effortlessly successful with women, will seem familiar to many readers, black or white. As the narrator says: ‘It have some men in this world, they don’t do nothing at all, and you feel that they would dead from starvation, but day after day you meeting them and they looking hale.’ The episode from Selvon’s novel that readers always remember is when Captain, skint and ravenous, resorts to luring seagulls into his Notting Hill room. ‘The menu had him looking well, he eat seagull in all manner and fashion.’ ‘Seagulls, like Caribbean immigrants,’ Sandhu comments, ‘are primarily creatures of the sea. When things are too hard for them by the sea, seagulls move to urban centres . . . Cap tempts the seagulls into his room with broken crusts just as West Indians were lured by crummy jobs and the promise of fiscal "bread".’

The chief villain of this book is Mrs Thatcher, who is seen as embodying a life-denying antagonism to cultural diversity and as having encouraged all the other enemies to urban grooviness: property speculators, racists, sexual prudes. Sandhu’s literary hero seems to be Hanif Kureishi, who is seen as a life-affirmer, a lover of ‘ribaldry and bawdiness’. His characters are ‘hungry to lap up the disorderly and heterotopian possibilities of metropolitan life’. Sandhu uses words such as ‘messy’ and ‘chaotic’ for the aspects of London captured by writers he admires. ‘Kureishi believes in urban messthetics – the idea that dirt, confusion and contamination define urban life.’ As for the suburbs, ‘for many artists, most famously John Betjeman, only bombs could make these places palatable.’ Sandhu here not only mistakes Slough for suburbia but also recruits a celebrant of suburban London to the anti-suburban cause.

Because of his utopian bent, Sandhu is uncomfortable with some writers whom he cannot avoid discussing. He looks at Linton Kwesi Johnson’s febrile chants on the page (without the incantatory rhythm that gives them purchase) and flinches from their ‘relish for violence’. They tell us of ‘the brooding ambience of London street culture in the 1970s’. This is a byway from which he is relieved to escape. He acknowledges that the material he has gathered is too miscellaneous to form a single narrative, but declares that miscellaneousness is London’s vivifying essence. ‘Most of all, it offers the possibility of possibility.’