Saturday, August 23, 2003

One of the very finest writers about London, regardless of colour, was Trinidad-born Samuel Selvon (1923-94). His novel The Lonely Londoners was published in 1956 ... set in a city still struggling to get back on its feet after the war. Joy itself seems rationed. The capital is blinded by peasoupers, and reeks of pigeon feed, paraffin fumes, week-old hair oil, drip-drying workers' overalls. There are sweatshops, immigrant hovels, junk-littered yards behind railway lines. Ex-servicemen wander the streets confused.

Selvon goes on to introduce us to some of those West Indians who, invited to rubble-strewn London to help the capital build itself up again, were all too often regarded as if they were part of that dereliction, the problem rather than the solution. There's Sir Galahad, the dandy loverman; Cap, a green-stripe-suited Nigerian, who spends his days hustling and his nights chatting up foreign students; Big City, a bluff self-promoter, who's always making up tall tales about the fancy toffs he's been consorting with in Mayfair and Belgravia. They're rogues, chancers, colonial wide boys. And we love them.

Selvon writes a kind of pavement poetry. He shows us the city from the point of view of those blowing into their palms on their way to an early shift, or tramping up to the dole office, or having just done a runner from a hostel when they can't pay the rent. It's through their eyes that we gaze at pretty secretaries leaving their offices on summer evenings, at the friezes hanging from the cornices of aged buildings, at the sheer pandemonium of the metropolis.

This is not the sad sociology of old Pathé newsreels or Picture Post stories about the "colour problem". For sure, we're shown young men, wrapped in overcoats beneath their thin blankets, staring forlornly out of the grubby windows of their Notting Hill Gate basements in winter. But just as often we see them loping up the Bayswater Road, coasting up to Marble Arch where they bump into their "spars" who are also on their way to cruise for girls round Hyde Park, lapping up the noise and smell of late-night Leicester Square. All of this in a style that is slangy, vulgar, sing-song, tender.

-- Sukhdev Sandhu, author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City, in an essay called "Love Letters to London", published a couple weeks ago in the Telegraph.

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