One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet. Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.
When Moses sit down and pay his fare he take out a white handkerchief and blow his nose. The handkerchief turns black and Moses watch it and curse the fog. (1)
Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) is grand. The writing, the characters, the thoughtfulness. The invitation into experiencing a London so particular to the Windrush generation’s time and place. The humour, the tall-tale aspect as though you were listening to these stories spoken aloud. The home truths. How when you come you stay in a hostel at first:
When Moses did arrive fresh in London, he look around for a place where he wouldn’t have to spend much money, where he could get plenty food, and where he could meet the boys and coast a old talk to pass the time away — for this city powerfully lonely when you on your own. (29)
How you find your way around London, into the places and the neighbourhoods you can live in and be accepted to a certain extent. The reflection on class and race and how these fit together.
The place where Tolroy and the family living was off the Harrow Road, and the people in that area call the Working Class. Wherever in London that it have Working Class, there you will find a lot of spades. This is the real world, where men know what it is to hustle a pound to pay the rent when Friday come. The houses around here old and grey and weatherbeaten, the walls cracking like the last days of Pompeii, it ain’t have no hot water, and in the whole street that Tolroy and them living in, none of the houses have bath. You had was to buy one of them big galvanise bath and boil the water and full it up, or else go to the public bath. Some of the houses still had gas light, which is to tell you how old they was. All the houses in a row in the street, on both sides, they build like one long house with walls separating them in parts, so your house jam up between two neighbours: is so most of the houses is in London The street does be always dirty except if rain fall. Sometimes a truck does come with a kind of revolving broom and some pipes letting out water, and the driver drive near the pavement, and water come out the pipes and the broom revolve, and so they sweep the road. It always have little children playing in the road, because they ain’t have no other place to play. They does draw hopscotch blocks on the pavement, and other things, and some of the walls of the buildings have signs painted like Vote Labour and Down with the Tories. The bottom of the street, it had a sweet-shop, a bakery, a grocery, a butcher and a fish and chips…
It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers. Them rich people who does live in Belgravia and Knightsbridge and up in Hampstead and them other plush places, they would never believe what it like in a grim place like Harrow Road or Notting Hill…People don’t talk about things like that again, they come to kind of accept that is so the world is, that it bound to have rich and poor, it bound to have some live by the Grace and other who have plenty. That is all about it, nobody does go into detail. A poor man, a rich man…
It have a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class and the spades, because when you poor things does level out, it don’t have much up and down. A lot of the men get kill in war and leave widow behind, and it have bags of these old geezers who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n. (59-61)
There are tales of stealing pigeons, catching seagulls. Eating well. Spur of the moment marriages. Mistakes. Unexpected aunts transforming a street and suddenly the corner store works on credit. The courage needed to find your way on the tube. The good times of London, the thrill you get sometimes thinking to yourself I’m here, I’m really here, and is fine:
So, cool as a lord, the old Galahad walking out to the road, with plastic raincoat hanging on the arm, and the eyes not missing one sharp craft that pass, bowing his head in a polite ‘Good evening’ and not giving a blast if they answer or not.This is London, this life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world. (75)
Galahad is who Moses met on the train. This is as much his story. His musings on race — what better way to think about how it is constructed, how meaningless it is and yet still shape our lives?
And Galahad watch the colour of his hand, and talk to it, saying, ‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know, why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, is you, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world.
So Galahad talking to the colour Black, as if is a person, telling it that is not he who causing botheration in the place, but Black, who is a worthless thing for making trouble all about. (77)
A new happiness for me every time I go to Piccadilly Circus, a fictional memory overlaid on my own but such a good one:
Always, from the first time he went there to see Eros and the lights, that circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gar laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire, in all this, standing there in the big city, in London. Oh Lord. (79)
This is what I do love about London, even if Bayswater Road is now far out of reach for people like me:
The changing of the seasons, the cold sl9icing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ Picadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning ‘Last night, in Trafalgar Square…’
What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else? What is it that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything — sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. (133-134)
And then there is Pressure (1975), the story of Tony just graduated from school and looking for work and Notting Hill in the 1970s and the life of a kid born in London to Trinidadian parents who believe this will open doors for him despite the colour of his skin. It is the first feature length British film by a Black director, Horace Ové, and cowritten by him and Selvon. It is a slow, but powerful engagement with racism, with the friendships built across race amongst the working class kids growing up together, with Black Power and Black realities in London of the time, of the tensions between generations and family born in one world and family born into another. It is rice and peas versus fish and chips. It is conformity to white masters and a white world and consolations in Jesus versus taking one’s place by right as a British citizen. It is how to take that right through collective action, but the limited numbers still engaged in that action. It is more serious than Lonely Londoners, a little more angry, less of good times even in poverty and more of struggle and frustration. More racist cops. More beatings. More complexity. It stays in one neighbourhood, perhaps you sense the tightening down of community, there is none of this sprawling across London that the life of hustling brings many of the characters in The Lonely Londoners. These characters, too, are absent in depth, there is no Big City, no Cap here though an echo of their younger selves perhaps, but instead a kid trying to make his own way, discovering racism for himself, working through his own identity slowly but surely.