Amir Tag Elsir, Telepathy: A Novel (2015)

telepathyThe narrator of Sudanese Amir Tag Elsir’s Telepathy (2015), a moderately successful author, returns from a trip to Kuala Lumpur, where he has been gathering impressions, incidents, ideas, character traits and even potential characters for his next novel. However, back in Khartoum, he finds himself living in the peculiar fall-out of his previous novel, Hunger’s Hope, when he runs into a man with the same name as its improbably-named protagonist, Nishan Hamza Nishan.

At first the narrator thinks it is some kind of stunt. Or perhaps an overzealous fan has, in misguided tribute, changed his name.

But the ‘real’ Nishan only found out about the ‘fictional’ Nishan when a neighbour – Shu‘ayb Zuhr, an unemployed graduate of the college of Public Relations and, it turns out, aspiring but uninspiring poet – brought Hunger’s Hope to his attention.

And, anyway, the ‘real’ Nishan has only read the first 120 pages. He does not know that in the second half of the novel the ‘fictional’ Nishan – whose biography up to that point is uncannily similar to his own – dies an untimely death.

The narrator recalls that writing Hunger’s Hope came to him much too easily – as if the ‘real’ Nishan had dictated it to him telepathically. Indeed, he concludes, telepathy is the only way the near identity of the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’ Nishans can be explained; the divergences between their ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ lives are surely the result of the ‘real’ Nishan’s broadcasting telepathically but unconsciously. (The narrator’s mentor, the octagenerian playwright Abd al-Qawl, is little help; he merely recalls that one of his most controversial early plays was dictated to him through 26 dreams on 26 consecutive night.)

What is the narrator to do? What does he owe to the ‘real’ Nishan? Has he – by giving the novel that ending – condemned the ‘real’ Nishan to an early grave? And where has the ‘real’ Nishan suddenly disappeared to? And what should the narrator do when former communist Asim Ajib, once known as Asim Revolution, and now founder of the Nonaligned Publishing house invents a jacket blurb by him for a collection of Shu‘ayb Zuhr’s poems? Are there plots and conspiracies, however absurd, afoot? And what exactly is the role of Najma, wannabe writer, not-exactly-fan/not-exactly-friend in all of this? And why has she chosen him as the father of the child she want to have?

Amir Tag Elsir’s short comic novel is full of curious incident and odd, often rather sad, characters, such as Murtaja, a young man who ‘was studying at the university and went mad. Now he declares confidently that he is Wikipedia … and that in his head are a billion pages on which the entire world is written’; he roams ‘around in torn shorts, staring at the ground while reciting odd stories from the version of the Wikipedia that lived in his head’. The narrators life and Khartoum itself are slightly out-of-focus jumbles of layered histories, of migrations and separations, of differences of wealth, custom, tradition and rank.

A quick and easy read, Telepathy piles up rather more questions than it answers. Its conclusion is deliberately abrupt. A final sentence screeches the novel to a halt, reframing (but not explaining) everything that has happened (or not happened) before.

 

Tag Elsir, born in Sudan and now resident in Qatar, is the nephew of Tayeb Salih, author of Season of Migration to the North (1966) which was one of my top reads of 2016; it is much too soon to decide whether Telepathy will make this years list.

 

 

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My top 20 books of 2016

152992In 2016, I read 243 books – there were a lot of short ones this year, and more comics than usual, plus I wrote a couple of synoptic chapters that required a lot of very fast reading or re-reading.

Portnoy compliance figures
All of the world except…122 (61 by women)
…straight white men writing in English 103
Don’t quite fit 18

 

My top 20 (which does not include books I’ve read before)

A Igoni Barrett, Blackass (2015)
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)
Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937)

Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World (1949)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle (2008)

Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, Trees, volume one (2014)
–. Trees, volume two (2015)

Muriel Jaeger, The Man with Six Senses (1927)
Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil (2005)
Storm Jameson (as William Lamb), The World Ends (1937)

China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris (2016)
Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015)

Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future (2016)

Maurice Renard, The Master of Light (1933)
Nina Revoyr, Southland (2003)
Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa (1910)

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (1966)
Nisi Shawl, Everfair (2016)
Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)

Tade Thompon, Rosewater (2016)

The full list
Leila Aboulela, Minaret
Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
Juice Aleem, Afrofutures and Astro Black Travel: A Passport to a Melanated Future
David Annan, Ape: The Kingdom of Kong
Jake Arnott, The House of Rumour
Mike Ashley, ed., The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers

JG Ballard, HighRise
Steven Barnes, Gorgon Child
–. Firedance 
Jim Barratt, Bad Taste
A Igoni Barrett, Blackass
Barroux, Hannah Berry, Kate Charlesworth, Dan McDaid, Pat Mills, Denise Mina, Will Morris, Adam Murphy, Mary Talbot and Irvine Welsh, IDP: 2043
William Beckford, Vathek
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
–. Oroonoko
Neil Bell (as Miles), The Seventh Bowl
Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones: Alias, volume one
Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland
–. Broken Monsters
Karen Blixen, Ehrengard
–. Out of Africa
–. Shadows on the Grass
Karin Boye, Kallocain
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Kamau Brathwaite, Middle Passages
Poppy Z Brite, His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood, and Other Stories
Douglas and Shea T Brode, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures
Anthony Browne, King Kong
Ed Bunker, Dog Eat Dog
Katherine Burdekin, Swastika Night
David Butler, Fantasy Cinema: Impossible Worlds on Screen
Octavia Butler, Clay’s Ark
–. Mind of My Mind
–. Patternmaster
–. Wild Seed

John W Campbell, Islands of Space
–. Invaders from the Infinite
Ramsey Campbell, Ancient Images
Karel Čapek, War with the Newts
Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
Willa Cather, My Ántonia
–. O Pioneers!
Aimé Césaire, A Tempest
M.E. Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa
Bruce Chatwin, The Viceroy of Ouidah
John Cheng, Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America
George Clinton and Ben Greenman, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle
JM Coetzee, Foe
John Collier, Tom’s A-Cold
Christopher Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage
Joseph Conrad, Almayer’s Folly
–. The Secret Agent
John Corbett, ed., The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra’s Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets
John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis, eds, Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago’s Afrofuturist Underground, 1954–68
–. Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro Black and Other Solar Myths
André Couvrer, The Androgyne
Alex Cox, Chris Bone and Justin Randall, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday
David Cronenberg, Consumed
JA Cuddon, ed., The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories
Lincoln Cushing, ¡Revolución!: Cuban Poster Art

Rjurik Davidson, The Library of Forgotten Dreams
Claire De Duras, Ourika
Françoise de Graffigny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman
Samuel R Delany, Babel-17
–. The Ballad of Beta-2
–. City of a Thousand Suns
–. Driftglass
–. The Einstein Intersection
–. Empire Star
–. The Jewels of Aptor
–. Nova
–. Out of the Dead City
–. The Tides of Lust
–. The Towers of Toron
Samuel R. Delany and Howard V. Chaykin, Empire: A Visual Novel
Guy Dent, Emperor of the If
Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory
Thomas Disch and John Sladek, Black Alice

George Alec Effinger, Budayeen Nights
–. A Fire in the Sun
–. The Exile Kiss
Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, Trees, volume one
–. Trees, volume two

Fadia Faqir, The Cry of the Dove
John M Faucette, The Age of Ruin
–. Crown of Infinity
–. Siege of Earth
–. The Warriors of Terra
Jennifer L. Feeley and Sarah Ann Wells, eds, Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema
Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain

Otto Willi Gail, The Shot into Infinity
– The Stone from the Moon
Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films
Steven Gil, Science Wars through the Stargate: Explorations of Science and Society in Stargate SG-1
Beryl Gilroy, Boy-Sandwich
John Gloag, To-Morrow’s Yesterday
Solon L. Goode, The Winged Ship
P Anderson Graham, The Collapse of Homo Sapiens
SL Grey, Under Ground
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade
Ken Grimwood, Replay

Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
Peter Haining, The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines
Cicely Hamilton, Theodore Savage
Edmond Hamilton, Crashing Suns
–. Outside the Universe
Lynsey Hanley, Estates: An Intimate History
Otfrid von Hanstein, Between Earth and Moon
Milo Hastings, City of Endless Night
Margrét Helgadóttir, The Stars Seem So Far Away
Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, eds, African Monsters
–. Asian Monsters
Cat Hellisen, Beastkeeper
Matt Hills, Blade Runner
Steve Holland, The Mushroom Jungle: A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing
Robert Horton, Frankenstein
Reginald Hudlin, John Romita, Jr and Dean White, Who Is The Black Panther?

Tony Isabella, Dennis O’Neill, Trevor Von Eeden, Michael Netzer, Frank Springer and Vince Colletta, Black Lightning
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
–. The Haunting of Hill House
Muriel Jaeger, The Man with Six Senses
Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil
Gwyneth Jones, The Grasshoppers’ Child
Bertène Juminer, Bozambo’s Revenge

Billy Kahora, Imagine Africa 500
Ann Kaplan, Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction
Frigyes Karinthy, Capillaria
David Katz, People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
Richard Kelly and Brett Weldele, Southland Tales: Two Roads Diverge
–. Southland Tales: Fingerprints
–. Southland Tales: The Mechanicals
Geoff King, Donnie Darko
Jack Kirby, Black Panther, volume one
–. Black Panther, volume two
Natsuo Kirino, Out
Teruhisa Kitahara and Yukio Shimizu, Robots, Spaceships and Other Tin Toys
Dale Knickerbocker, ed., Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from Beyond the Anglophone Universe

Larissa Lai, Automaton Biographies
William Lamb (Storm Jameson), The World Ends
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
–. Ancillary Sword
Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
–. Tombs of Atuan
Gaston LeRoux, The Man with the Black Feather
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress, volume one: Awakening

Don McGregor and mostly Billy Graham, The Essential Black Panther, volume one
Don McGregor et al, The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man
Marc McLaurin, Dwayne Turner, Rurik Tyler, Gordon Purcell and Sal Velluto, Luke Cage: Second Chances, volume one
Marc McLaurin, DG Chichester, Gregory Wright, Scott Benefiet, Paris Cullins, Brian Pelletier, Richard Pace, Kirk Van Wormer and Steven Butler, Luke Cage: Second Chances, volume two
Zaiba Malik, We Are A Muslim, Please
Nick Mamatas, Cthulhu Senryu
Linda Medley, Castle Waiting
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy
Abram Merritt, The Moon Pool
China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris
–. London’s Overthrow
G.R. Mitchison, The First Workers’ Government, or New Times for Henry Dubb
Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital
Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
José Moselli, Illa’s End
Sam Moskowitz, ed., When Women Rule

E Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet
Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti
–. The Book of Phoenix
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization

Jussi Parikka, The Anthrobscene
Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future
Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit
Charles Portis, Norwood
Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself
–. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself
Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

Sun Ra, The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose
Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief
–. The Fractal Prince
–. The Causal Angel
Sir Walter Ralegh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana
Rudolph Raspe, The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Maurice Renard, The Master of Light
Nina Revoyr, Southland
Chris Roberson and Robert Adler, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeep?: Dust to Dust, volume one
Chris Roberson and Robert Adler, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeep?: Dust to Dust, volume two
Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting
Randall Robinson, The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay
Roy Rockwood (Howard R Garis), Through Space to Mars; or, The Longest Journey on Record
Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa
Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs Mary Rowlandson
Salman Rushdie, East, West

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
James Sallis, Bluebottle
Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film: History and Memory 1927–1949
Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm
Max Sexton and Malcolm Cook, Adapting Science Fiction to Television: Small Screen, Expanded Universe
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
–. The Tempest
Edward Shanks, The People of the Ruins
Nisi Shawl, Everfair
Lao She, Cat Country
MP Shiel, The Young Men Are Coming!
Robert Silverberg, The World Inside
John Sinclair, ed. Sun Ra: Interviews and Essays
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
–. NW
Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me, Deadly
Nick Srnick and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
Francis Stevens (Gertrude Barrows), The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy
–. The Heads of Cerberus

Greg Tate, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America
–. Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience
JP Telotte and Gerald Duchovany, eds, Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text
Andrew Teverson, Fairy Tale
Roy Thomas et al. The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, volume 1
Tade Thompon, Making Wolf
–. Rosewater
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute

Max Valier, A Daring Trip to Mars
Jen Van Meter, Cully Hamner and Laura Martin, Black Lightning Year One
Théo Varlet and André Blandin, Timeslip Troopers
Gerald Vizenor, The Heirs of Columbus

McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene
Andy Weir, The Martian
HG Wells, All Aboard for Ararat
–. The Anatomy of Frustration
–. The Holy Terror
–. The Shape of Things to Come
Alex Wheatle, Brixton Rock
Jack Williamson, The Legion of Space
–. The Cometeers
Mark JP Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation
Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges
Barbara Wootton, London’s Burning

Gene Luen Yang, Saints
Paul Youngquist, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism

Rachel Zadok, Gem Squash Tokoloshe
Chen Zo, Sorceror to the Crown

The City in Fiction and Film, week 19

scan0005Week 18

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?
More smoke.

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.

Week 20.

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.”

Recommended reading
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.

Recommended viewing
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.