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.

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