This week we entered the final block of the module, looking at the multicultural city. Our focus this week was fiction the experience of coming to England – and to London – as an emigrant from the Caribbean. We looked at extracts from Jean Rhys, George Lamming and Sam Selvon – and then ran out of time for VS Naipaul.
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was born in Dominica; her father was a Welsh doctor, and her mother ‘third-generation creole’. She lived mostly in the UK from the age of 16; not a huge success at RADA, she became a demimondaine, a chorus girl, an artists’ model – which certainly informs the opening of Voyage in the Dark (1934), a novel in which Anna Morgan is relocated (by her indifferent stepmother) from the Caribbean to the UK after her father’s death. Anna becomes a chorus girl, and then a wealthy man’s mistress. After they break up, she slowly descends into poverty and ultimately nearly dies having an abortion. The novel’s title plays on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), reversing the direction of colonial exploration of a strange land; at the same time, Rhys displays her modernist credentials through passages of interior monologue that include flashbacks to Anna’s Caribbean childhood.
Our focus was on the first three pages of the novel, to see how England and the Caribbean were contrasted. A lot of this is achieved by appeals to the senses, and by mixing memories and imaginative recall into the different present. The Caribbeanis associated with ‘heat’ (and not the mere warmth of a fire or of bed clothes) and ‘light’ and exotic ‘purple’; England with ‘cold’ and ‘darkness’ and ‘grey’ – with Southsea’s grey streets and ‘grey stone promenade’ and ‘grey-brown or grey-green sea’. The Caribbean was rich with smells (frangipani, lime juice, cinammon, cloves, ginger, syrup, incense) as well as – and indicative of race/class distinctions there – the smell ‘of niggers and wood-smoke and salt fishcakes fried in lard’. It was a wide open space, with breezes off the land and sea. In contrast, the small towns Anna and her friend Maudie visit with their theatrical troupe are devoid of variety and ‘always looked so exactly alike’. Motion becomes stasis – ‘you were perpetually moving to another place which was perpetually the same’ – and the nearest to escape is an architecture that mocks you with the memory of transit: ‘rows of little houses with chimneys like the funnels of dummy steamers and smoke the same colour as the sky’ (so grey, I’m guessing). And the laundry hangs limply on the line ‘without moving, in the grey-yellow light’.
The theatrical troupe does bring a slight sense of the scandalous and exotic to dreary Southsea: the landlady initially mistakes the two chorus girls for prostitutes, and her opinion of them does not improve when they do not rise until after lunch-time, and Maudie swans around in a nightgown and a kimono that is, significantly and of course, torn.
Idling on the sofa, Anna reads Zola’s Nana. Its cover features a stout woman with a wine glass, dandling a little incongruously on ‘the knee of a bald-headed man in evening dress’. It is a cautionary foreshadowing. The incense of the Corpus Christi processions a few paragraphs earlier gives way to the image of a tree in the back garden which has been cut back so awkwardly it ‘looks like a man with stumps instead of arms and legs’. The body of Christ becomes an amputee, symbolically castrated. (The novel opens with a broadly Christian – and theatrical – image of death and rebirth: ‘It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again.’)
Anna is a bit ambivalent about the dirtiness of her ‘dirty book’, and Maudie, who here is Rhys’s mouthpiece, implies the intentions of her own semi-autobiographical novel: ‘it’s about a tart. … I bet you a man writing a book about a tart tells a lot of lies one way and another’.
Zola’s novel – or, at least, the idea of it – underscores Rhys’s complex blend of the exotic and the mundane, a constantly-breaking-down binary opposite that recurs in the fiction of Caribbean emigrants to Britain.
Next we turned to emigrants of the Windrush era. George Lamming (1927-) was born in Barbados of mixed African and English parentage. He taught in Port of Spain, Trinidad (1946-50) before emigrating to England, where he became a writer and a broadcaster on BBC Colonial Service. He became an academic in 1967, and subsequently worked at universities in Jamaica, US, Denmark, Tanzania and Australia.
We explored a long and rather curious section in his The Emigrants (1954). The novel follows a disparate group of Caribbean emigrants sailing to the UK; once in London, they slowly drift apart, but their lives intertwine and occasionally intersect. We looked at the end of the first, shorter part of the novel, after the ship has docked in Plymouth. Here, the wind is associated with Britain, but it is a ‘keen’ wind, bringing with it darks clouds, the threat of rain, and a coldness that has even the Devon locals constantly rubbing their hands together to stay warm.
Again, there is a sense of the colonial adventure narrative being inverted. The dockworkers
were bewildered by this exhibition of adventure, or ignorance, or plain suicide. For a while the movies seemed truer than they had vouched for, the story of men taking ship with their last resources and sailing into unknown lands in search of adventure and fortune and mystery. England had none of these things as far as they knew.
Although to emigrant, of course, England will at least have adventure and mystery – and fortune (if not fortunes) will have a hand in what befalls them, good or ill or indifferent.
The dockworkers conclude that the ‘archipelago of unutterable beauty’ they imagine the emigrants have come from has ‘bred lunatics’:
How could sane men leave the sun and the sea …, abandon the natural relaxation that might almost be a kind of permanent lethargy, to gamble their last coin on a voyage to England. England of all places.
In the next few lines, the emigrants are described as having ‘childish curiosity’ and behaving like ‘timid spaniels’. Which prompted a discussion as to where such imagery – Lamming attributing racist stereotypes of black people to white characters – comes from; while the power relations of race mean that Lamming cannot be being racist about whites her, is he prejudiced about them? Or does he share a class/race prejudice against Caribbeans of a lower class and educational level than himself? There is insufficient evidence in the extract to draw any firm conclusions, but we returned to some of these issues in relation to the Selvon extract.
After three pages of the roaming third-person narrative typical of the novel, it suddenly changes form into something closer to poetry or competing dramatic (and distracted) monologues. The train journey to Paddington is depicted through a cacophony of voices and thoughts, snatches of dialogue and musings, in dialects and pidgins and patois rarely attributable to any specific one of the characters encountered in the preceding hundred pages.
It is a remarkable passage, which gives a good sense of how strange England is. Sugar rationing and saccharine are as mystifying when you come from sugar plantations as the notion of tea without milk. As English beer. As terms of friendly familiarity and slang like ‘spade’. As the British obsession with newspapers and legalities and the football pools. As the English’s ignorance of the range and variety of the Caribbean – and their surprise that a citizen of the Commonwealth, formerly the Empire, should speak English better than the French do. As the billboards advertising cold cream and razor blades and ‘Hermivita’ and ‘dissecticide’.
This passage also ends with foreboding. The train comes to a stop. There is impenetrable smoke everywhere. Catastrophe is intimated.
But it is just the London smog:
Tell me, Tornado, tell me.
What, man, what?
When we get outta this smoke,
When we get outta this smoke, w’at happen next?
Next we turned to Sam Selvon (1923-94), my favourite of these writers and the one whose work I find hardest to talk about. He was born in Trinidad to East Indian parents – his father an emigrant from Madras, and his maternal grandfather was Scottish. He was a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian (1945-50). He emigrated to London and clerked in the Indian Embassy, then relocated to Canada in the 1970s.
Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) depicts roughly three years in the life of sundry emigrants in London, most centrally Moses Aloetta. He has been there a decade, achieved little beyond survival and is getting increasingly homesick for Trinidad. There is no overarching plot as such, just incidents that befall characters – and their tall tales and boasts – as they look for lodging, jobs, loans, sex and other pleasures. The third-person narration breaks new ground by being in the same creolised English that the characters use (and there is a remarkable stream-of-consciousness passage about the London summer).
The novel opens, of course, ‘one grim winter evening’. The cold will be a key feature of the novel’s opening as, in the most comical of the colonial inversions, the newly arrived Henry Oliver – aka Galahad – steps off the train at Waterloo wearing ‘a old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong and no overcoat or muffler or gloves or anything for the cold’.
For Moses, who has agreed to meet this stranger and get him started in London, there is a
kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet.
Selvon also comments on the English obsession with the newspapers (and radio), which they believe without question. And Moses has been here so long he has started to behave in the same way, albeit unknowingly – he considers the new arrivals to be ‘real hustlers, desperate … invading the country by the hundreds’, regurgitating the language of folk-devils and moral panics the British press are so accomplished at creating. There is a journalist at Waterloo, talking to the arrivals and taking pictures, and it is not entirely clear whether it is his copy or his editor’s revisions which produce yet another scare-mongering story about not just lone workers but now whole families arriving. And like all ‘English people [he] believe[s] that everybody who come from the West Indies come from Jamaica’.
This time it is Tanty, who has begrudgingly emigrated with her children and grandchildren, not baffled British dockworkers, who questions
Why all you leaving the country to go to England? Over there it is so cold that only white people does live there.
Indeed it is so cold that, Galahad says,
‘I find when I talk smoke coming out my mouth.’
‘Is so it is in this country,’ Moses say. ‘Sometimes the words freeze and you have to melt it to hear the talk’
The opening pages also give a sense of the housing discrimination and landlord-exploitation emigrants faced (and were, paradoxically, blamed for). Later in the novel, the intersections of race and class are elaborated upon when the narrator observes that ‘wherever in London that it have Working Class, there you will find a lot of spades’; and in one of the most moving passages in the book, Galahad, works out that it ‘Is not we that the people don’t like, … is the colour Black’, and begins to talk to the colour of his own skin as if it is somehow a separate and distinct entity.
We closed with a brief discussion of Basil Dearden’s 1951 film Pool of London. An Ealing crime thriller cum social melodrama (with moments of post-The Third Man expressionist lighting, of Humphrey Jennings/GPO-like poetic realism and of pre-Free Cinema procedural documentary), it is set around the Thames when London was still a freight port – and a city of wartime ruins. (One of the delights of the film is the skyline – you can actually see Nelson’s Column from the South Bank!)
Pool of London. seems intended to meet the call of Michael Balcon’s 1945 manifesto for British cinema ‘to offer “a complete picture of Britain”, which includes being ‘a leader in social reform in the defeat of social injustice and a champion of civil liberties’. It is dazzling sleight-of-hand. It features the first starring role for a black actor in British film since Paul Robeson’s films in the thirties. It is stolidly, agonisingly liberal and reasonable. And it sidesteps the contemporary story of immigration by showing only one black character, Johnny (Earl Cameron), who although he arrives by boat is not an immigrant.
Johnny works on a cargo vessel that treks back and forth between London and the continent. He is only ashore when his ship is in port, and has no intention of staying. He meets a nice white middle class girl and although they are drawn to each other, the nearest they come to touching is when the bus takes a corner too quickly (this is not Sapphire (Dearden 1959) or Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961)). He is restrained and respectful, and avoids confrontation on the odd occasion someone says something overtly racist. He loses control just once, when he has been steered into a dive bar – coincidentally the only place in the whole of London where we glimpse, momentarily, another black face – to be robbed.
And, most importantly, he leaves.
Recommended critical reading
Akbur, Riad. “The City as Imperial Centre: Imagining London in Two Caribbean Novels.” A Companion to the City. Ed.Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 65–74.
Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. London: Pan, 2003. See chapters 18–22.
Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. London: Hutchinson, 1987.
Kundnan, Arun. The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain. London: Pluto, 2007. See chapter 1, “Echoes of Empire.”
McLeod, John. Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis. London: Routledge, 2004.
MacPhee, Graham. Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Especially 40–51, 118–127.
Nava, Mica. “Gender and Racial Others in Postwar Britain.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 671–82.
Sivanandan, A. “From Resistance to Rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Britain.” A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, London: Pluto Press, 1982.
Solomos, John. Race and Racism in Britain. 3rd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Chapter 3, “The Politics of Race and Immigration Since 1945.”
The experience of Afrodiasporic migration to Britain is also captured in Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch (1972) and historical novels such as Caryl Phillips’s Final Passage (1985), Beryl Gilroy’s In Praise of Love and Children (1996) and Andrea Levy’s Every Light in the House is Burnin’ (1994) and Small Island (2004).
Sympathetic treatment by a white British author can be found in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades (1957); his Absolute Beginners (1959) culminates in the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.
The classic Arabic text of emigrating to Britain is the Sudanese Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966).
The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s Black Docker (1956) is a semi-autobiographical account of his years in France.
The Nine Muses (Akomfrah 2010) is an intriguing account of post-war emigration from the Caribbean and India to Britain. The BBC documentary Windrush is a more detailed, conventional account of West Indian emigration to Britain.
Pool of London is one of several films to address Windrush-era migration of Afro-Caribbeans, along with Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961), A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1961), The L-Shaped Room (Forbes 1962) and To Sir, With Love (Clavell 1967). Absolute Beginners (Temple 1986), adapted from MacInnes’s novel, is also of interest.
Earlier, the African-American singer Paul Robeson starred in several British films, including Big Fella (Wills 1937) and The Proud Valley (Tennyson 1940).
The first feature film by a black British filmmaker is Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), co-written by Sam Selvon.
Sembène’s 1966 La Noire de…/Black Girl, adapted from his story ‘The Promised Land’, depicts a migrant Senegalese worker in France. Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961) is about Native Americans who have had to migrate within the US to Los Angeles. El Norte (Nava 1983) and Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009) follow Latin Americans migrating to the US. The Brother from Another Planet (Sayles 1984) tells the story of a black alien who crash-lands in New York.