Category Archives: London

He dressed far too well.

Night and the City, by Gerald Kersh

There’s been a Patrick Hamilton revival in recent years. It’s well deserved. For many years Hamilton and his stories of life among the English working and lower-middle classes were forgotten. Now Hamilton’s back and while he’s still not as widely known as George Orwell there’s a new appreciation of his work and talent.

When I think of the great London writers I think of authors like Orwell and Hamilton. I think of Julian Maclaren-Ross too of course. Until recently though I wouldn’t have thought of authors like Gerald Kersh or Alexander Baron.

Kersh, like Hamilton until recently, is not well remembered. Probably his most famous book is Night and the City. That’s because it was made into two films – one directed by Jules Dassin and highly regarded and the other a 1992 US remake starring De Niro which I know little about. The films depart from the book though and the book is fascinating.

Night and the City is the tale of Harry Fabian. Fabian is a small time crook. More precisely, he’s a ponce – what today we’d call a pimp. He lives off the earnings made by his girlfriend Zoe on the streets. He’s not just a ponce though. He’s also a small time hustler and chancer. Harry has big dreams and models himself on Bogart and other Hollywood stars. He likes to pass himself off as a big-time songwriter over from the US. He fantasises about breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. If he only has a shilling in his pocket he’d rather give it away to look flush than save it to eat that night.

The irony with Harry is that he’s bright and capable of being charming. If he was prepared to do an honest job he’d probably do very well. It’s his desire for a shortcut to the big time which keeps him small time. Like many lazy men, he works harder at avoiding work than he’d ever have had to in an actual job.

As Night and the City opens Harry has come up with a new scheme. He plans to become a wrestling promoter. He figures it’s an easy racket and one that will see his name in lights. He needs a partner and investment. He finds that partner in a man called Figler who makes money buying and selling whatever there is to be bought and sold but Figler insists that Harry contributes £100 himself to the start-up costs. That’s a lot of money. Fortunately Harry overheard one of Zoe’s clients, a married man, talking about how he had some money put by and Harry’s not above a little extortion if needs must…

Harry isn’t the only character here. There’s a rich cast of them. What Kersh is painting is a portrait of nighttime Soho. There’s Vi, a girl who makes her money by spending time with men in nightclubs and getting them to buy her drinks. Phil Nosseros, owner of the Silver Fox club where Vi works. Bert, a costermonger. Figler. Assorted wrestlers (the Black Strangler, Ali the Turk). This is a book filled with bar and club owners, thugs, ex-cons, gamblers and lowlife. It’s Soho in all its seedy 1930s glory.

Kersh has an ear for the language of Soho. This is a book filled with chat. Most of it is too lengthy to easily quote, but here’s an excerpt to give the flavour:

‘Hallo, Duke,’ said Fabian.
‘Ah-hah!’ said the man called Duke. He was short and heavy, with the ashen complexion of the man who never sees daylight, and a heavy face knocked out of shape in some forgotten back-alley skirmish; thin purplish lips, compressed to a line like a dried-up pin-scratch; quite expressionless. The vague light of the street-lamp filled his eye-sockets with shadows, and he spoke to Fabian without moving his lips, in the hurried undertone of the old convict. Force of habit caused him to hide his cigarette in the palm of his hand as he smoked it. Smoke came out of the nostrils, but the glow of the cigarette was invisible.
‘How’s life, Duke?’
‘On the ribs.’
‘You skint?’
‘Dead skint.’
‘Catch hold of this,’ said Fabian, passing two half-crowns.
‘Thanks: I won’t forget yer, Harry.’
‘You been up the club?’
‘Just been there. You know what they done? They put the bar on me.’
‘Is that a fact?’ asked Fabian, with sympathy. ‘Well, you should worry. Did you notice Figler up there?’
‘No. One o’these days I’m gonna do that gaff. I’ll smash the bloody place up.’
‘Don’t you be such a mug, Duke. You don’t want to trouble with that mob. If they bar you, let ’em. Don’t you care. Stick around: I may have something in your line in a day or two.’
‘Thanks, Harry, I won’t forget yer.’

The dialogue is colloquial and slangy. Some characters are almost hard to follow (for a non-Londoner one in particular, Bert, could be near impossible as he makes heavy use of Cockney rhyming slang – “ball o’ chalk” for walk for example). There’s a real sense here of how people spoke. Reading the novel I felt like I had entered Harry’s world. It’s easy to see why it got made into a film by Dassin.

Kersh’s talent is more mixed when it comes to description. At times he’s excellent. At other times he gets too enthusiastic and carried away. At least once the words “purple prose” leapt to mind. The balance is on the right side: he’s good much more often than he’s bad. He’s just not always good.

The club Duke referred to above is the International Political Club. It’s a sober establishment by the standards of Soho with a bar festooned with notices warning against betting and bad language. Here’s a description of that bar:

At the end of the club-room stood the bar, with a glass case for sandwiches, some shelves full of bottles and a dozen huge Salami sausages hanging on strings; bound round, dried and blackened, marked with pallid patches of exuded grease – the corpses of wicked salamis, hanged and strung up as a warning to the rest.

I like that passage. I like the glass case and the shelves and the Salamis. It’s very easy to picture. I’m not absolutely sure though that with the corpses of wicked Salamis Kersh isn’t taking a good description and carrying on with it just a little too far. It’s a problem that recurs more than once.

I don’t want to overstate the issue with excessive description. Some of it is simply a point of period style. Contemporary fiction is often much lighter on descriptive detail than was common in the 19th Century or earlier twentieth (there are always exceptions of course in any period). Some of it is just that when so much is well judged that which isn’t stands out more.

Kersh intercuts Fabian’s story with that of Helen. She’s a flatmate of Vi’s and is persuaded by Vi to get into the nightclub hostess game. Helen has reservations, but she also has no money. Vi leads a twilight life in which she lives by night and sleeps by day, as do most in this novel, and it’s plainly taking its toll on her. Vi’s stupid though, and fritters her money as fast as she earns it. If Helen could do the same work but put the money aside she could get out of the life and do something better before too long.

Helen drew a deep breath – the deep breath of a diver about to plunge into dark water. ‘I’ll come!’ she said.

The greatest consolation of the degraded human being is the fact that there are others in the same mire. The lower you descend, the intenser grows your yearning for standardisation. The drunkard loves to see others get drunk; the prostitute would like to see all the women in the world on the streets. There is no satisfaction quite so deep and evil as that of the man who can say: ‘Aha, now we’re all in the same stew!’ With what joyous melancholy, with how delicious a thrill of self-pity the out-of-work man sees the unemployment figures rise! ‘Be exactly my size; no bigger, and no smaller,’ says the dwarf; ‘damn your eyes!’ whispers the blind man; ‘Comrades!’ yells the communist-

‘Oh, Goody-Goody!’ cried Vi, dancing with joy. ‘You stick with me. I’ll show you the ropes. I’ll learn you all you want to know …’

Whatever else goes to rot, the will to power persists, urgent but ineffectual, like an old man’s lust, even in the last flat tundras of life.

The trouble for Vi is that Helen’s good at the job. She’s pretty and she’s clever. In a bravura passage Phil Nosseros talks her through how the Silver Fox club parts customers with their cash through inflated bar prices, valueless toys they’re encouraged to buy for the girls and various other tricks and scams. Soon Helen is the best earner in the club. She even becomes a favourite of Harry Fabian when he decides to celebrate getting into the wrestling game with a night out.

Helen falls in love with a sculptor named Adam who also takes a job at the Silver Fox as a waiter to get some money so he can get a studio. She and Adam plan to give up the life as soon as possible. It’s just for the short-term. As Phil Nosseros remarks though ‘… Once you’re in night-life, you’re in.’

I’ve read no book that captures the world of late night dives, sticky-carpeted clubs, stale cigarette smoke and bleary-eyed punters better than Night and the City. At times it’s literary in tone, and at other times almost pulp. At all times though it’s merciless in holding its murky subject matter up to the light. Fabian is a great character, but he’s not the only one (Adam is the only one who’s a bit dull, being the one who’s least corrupt).

Kersh’s London is largely gone now. Soho today is still filled with clubs and bars, but they’re mostly clean and well run establishments catering to the gay scene or the reasonably well-heeled. There are still sex shops and drugs are still sold, but nowadays the traders and dealers nestle among pleasant cafes and restaurants. The traces of Fabian’s world stubbornly remain, but they are just traces.

I love Soho. It’s my favourite part of London. This is the quintessential Soho novel. It’s not flawless, but it deserved to be republished and I’m glad London Books chose to do so.

Night and the City. By way of caution this is a book written in the 1930s and it contains some explicitly racist language and a rather dubious depiction of the only significant Black character.

On a more positive note it’s also worth mentioning the excellent introduction by John King which puts Kersh in context and sheds some additional light on the period. It’s worth reading, not least because without the foreword I wouldn’t have realised that Fabian is Jewish (as was Kersh) which I think Kersh would have expected a contemporary reader to realise. Kersh wanted to show working class Jewish life in London, and though that’s not central to Night and the City it’s nice to know it’s part of it.

Finally, while writing this I found this review of the novel dating back to 1938. I couldn’t not include it.

Advertisements

15 Comments

Filed under Kersh, Gerald, London

Woolworths

I just finished Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City over the weekend. I’ll be writing it up shortly. While reading it though I was amused by this description of British chain store Woolworth’s which explains both why it survived so long and why it was no surprise when it finally went bust at the end of 2008. This was written in 1938, but still held pretty much true seventy years later:

But next door to the stationer’s there was a Woolworth’s store. She went in – not to buy anything, but only to look around. Nobody goes into Woolworth’s shops to buy anything: one visits Woolworth’s as a kind of museum, merely to look. And one comes out with a pot of paint, a hacksaw, a kettle, a pound of sweets, three egg-cups, a writing-pad, a lampshade, an electric-light bulb, a typewriter-rubber, an ice-cream cone, a rubber belt, two apostle spoons, a Swiss roll, a toilet roll and a packet of seeds.

I don’t even know what an apostle spoon is, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn they’d still sold them right up to the end.

8 Comments

Filed under Kersh, Gerald, London, UK fiction

Pity, terror and grief

At its best, crime fiction is moral fiction. It is a forensic examination of the relationship between the individual and society, of our obligations to each other and of the gap between our image of ourselves and our shabby truth. It is a mirror held up, showing us the truth.

How the Dead Live is the third of Derek Raymond’s four factory novels, written in 1986 it is a scathing diatribe against the Britain of its day, married to an analysis of what it means to be conscious of mortality in a universe without purpose, and of the implications that has for our treatment of each other. As ever with Raymond, it is a novel obsessed with death and the knowledge of death, and of how that knowledge both grants and denies purpose to life. It is crime fiction at its best.

I read How the Dead Live in an edition published by the ever excellent Serpent’s Tail, here with a far from excellent foreword by Will Self who mentions that he only read the novel in order to be able to write the foreword. Despite his usual intelligence, Self bizarrely manages to miss much of the point of the work, to the extent that his main criticism of it “[Raymond] simply isn’t aware of the social context within which things happen” is about as wrong as it could be – the book is in large part precisely about that social context and about how in 1980s Britain it was undergoing radical change.

How the Dead Live was written only a few years after race riots became headline news in Britain, when debates were raging in the press and Parliament about how to deal with the widespread alienation Britain’s Black and Asian population were experiencing. More than once in the book, almost as backdrop, we see the racism these new arrivals face – an Asian man chased by Whites at chucking out time, an Indian told to his face he can’t buy property because the area he wants to buy in is for Whites only.

Meanwhile, in Raymond’s Britain, the old order is literally dying. The men and women who fought in World War II are the last of a generation of Britons who had a purpose, who had a place in a society that valued them. As they die, they are replaced by Thatcherite businessmen hollowing out dying communities, and by young men with neither jobs nor a sense of personal worth. Here the unnamed narrator describes an unemployed petty criminal living in a derelict squat:

Men like him had been part of our protection once. They were the descendants of men who had sat still, stroking their horses’ necks as they waited for the cannon to open up across ravines very far from Thornhill but whose spirit, stil the same, was now unneeded and abandoned.

A page later, the young man is singing “Over the Hills and Far Away” to himself, perhaps in case we missed the point.

Raymond’s narrator describes indifferent politicians who “blag serenely on, as though poverty, since they have no policy for it, didn’t exist”. He describes endemic corruption, greed and squalor, town centres filled with violent drunks and crass new money. His Britain is not a naturalistic place – it is ultimately a touch too extreme for that and the counterpoints between the old guard and the new disaffected too marked, but it is an image that I remember well from living through the time. There is a sense that Britain had come unglued, lost its way, and that all the future held was further decline. For some, Thatcher’s vision promised a way forwards, for many others however it represented instead a new viciousness and selfishness that cast aside what little good remained.

Raymond’s is a bleak and furious vision, but what it is not is a vision uninformed by the social currents of its time. Rather, Britain’s decline and the perceived moral vacuity of the new order is one of the book’s central motifs.

Another key theme of How the Dead Live, is a classic Raymondian argument about the nature of mortality and consciousness. For Raymond, being intelligent is a curse, allowing one to understand the inevitability of death and the futility of life, while the stupid continue without that burden and simply enjoy themselves. To be stupid is a desirable state, as the intelligent cannot avoid the truth and the truth is insupportable.

Sometimes I wish my mind would go away and leave me in peace; I would give all that I understand and feel and know, my very existence, to get out of my situation. I would grovel for the superb gift of stupidity, to be able to smile at my own death without knowing what it was, like the sheep did that I saw killed with my father when I was small – I don’t know what I would pay not to see through what I sense, know through what I know, finding only the rottenness of others. All our agony is a short wonder to be forgotten like a day’s rain, as when the lights go down after a play and it begins to snow outside the theatre. But in my role how can I ever say what I intend – for language, like life itself, has become irretrievable, hobbling after what’s left of nature.

Once again, the slaughter of an animal (here a sheep, in He Died With His Eyes Open a pig) becomes a key symbol of the horror of death, but here the sheep is to be envied for not understanding its fate.

In He Died With His Eyes Open, the murdered Staniland voices through his taped thoughts ideas of the horror of existence, of the overwhelming beauty of it too and of the terror of understanding it all. Here, the unnamed sergeant has in a sense become Staniland, the voice after all throughout is really Raymond’s and both Staniland and the sergeant are his instruments. Less successfully, near the end another key character, Dr. Mardy, voices thoughts on existence, death and the burden of intellect that are essentially indistinguishable from those of Staniland or the sergeant (I would have preferred the character to remain a little more distinct).

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, a woman has gone missing in the village of Thexton, has been missing now for six months. Local police conducted no investigation, no missing person reports were filed, the case then somehow came to the attention of the Chief Constable who ordered an investigation. Our unnamed protagonist is therefore dispatched to the countryside to find out what happened to the missing woman. In no short order, he has uncovered local police corruption, blackmail, extortion and (this being a factory novel) existential horror and, for a change of pace, gothic horror too.

I mention gothic horror above because, although How the Dead Live is very much crime fiction, it also borrows from the tradition of the gothic novel. The husband of the missing woman lives in a vast mouldering pile, a decaying house hiding a terrible secret, a place once bright and full of life but now decaying and foul. Parallels with Britain itself are I think not accidental.

As the sergeant investigates, he uncovers of course the rottenness pervading Thexton, the corruption in this New England. But he also uncovers something more, the truth of the house and of what happened there. As the house’s secret is revealed, I found myself feeling both horror and loathing, an effect all the more impressive in that it was born of understanding and compassion, not the simple fear of the unknown so commonly employed. The true horror in this novel, as in Raymond’s others but here so much starker, comes when we know the truth and realise how terrible and how pathetic it is. The horror is born of pity, not fear.

My conception of knowledge is grief and despair, because that has been the general matter of my existence.

Raymond’s prose continues to be precise and excellent, I loved descriptions like “his face was pinched and tired, his lips like a machine that refuses a credit card.” There is also a lengthy sequence near the beginning where the sergeant and his sister talk, Raymond here capturing the flow of dialogue in a very natural way. Descriptions too such as “The windows all had the same mail-order leer that made a flat, to its family, whatever its colour, seem falsely safe, and each was whitened by the eyeball of a Japanese lampshade.” show a nice eye for detail – when I left home those lampshades were so common that even though I didn’t like them I couldn’t find anything else for my first flat. In Raymond’s hands of course they become yet another symbol of decay, a blind eye staring out of a place order has left behind. For Raymond, the corpse is never far away.

By all accounts I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth and final of the factory novels, is the best of the series. If that’s true, I have an extraordinary book still ahead of me.

How the Dead Live

29 Comments

Filed under British crime fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, London, Noir, Raymond, Derek

If you are a tenant, you catch your arse forever, but if you are a landlord, it is a horse of a different colour

Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon

As I write this, I am on a skiing holiday in Banff, Canada. Accordingly, I may be slow to respond to any comments.

Moses Ascending is the 1975 sequel to Sam Selvon’s glorious 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners, which I discuss here and which Kevin from Canada discusses (together with Moses Ascending, here). Ultimately, both works form part of a trilogy, ending with the 1983 novel Moses Migrating, itself reviewed by Kevin from Canada here.

The Lonely Londoners probably counts for me as my great discovery of 2008, the novel which brought me the most unexpected pleasure, being well written, passionate and very funny while simultaneously giving real insight into the 1950s immigrant experience (and the immigrant experience more generally).

With Moses Ascending, we find ourselves no longer in the 1950 world of hopeful Caribbean “boys” trying to make their way in the face of native prejudice. Instead we are now in the more directly confrontational world of the 1970s. New immigrant populations have arrived, meeting fresh hostility (including from the previous wave of immigrants, of which more later) and the children of the original immigrants are themselves now natives, born and raised in England and with a different outlook to that of their parents.

Moses, a central character of the original novel, here is still writing his memoirs and has come to regard himself as an intellectual figure, but he is no longer central to the West Indian ex-pat community as he once was. Where twenty years ago he welcomed those new to Britain, helped shelter them and establish them so that they could find their own ways, now he has lost track of his old friends, has himself become a landlord of a crumbling Shepherd’s Bush tenement house with a five year lease left to run before it is condemned, and has become embittered and cynical.

Although The Lonely Londoners dealt squarely with issues of racism, estrangement and the objectification of the immigrant, its tone remained one of optimism and warmth. Here, that optimism has faded, soured, though the anger that was present in the original remains. Where The Lonely Londoners has a ten page prose poem praising London, a poem that includes recognition of prejudice but also is full of the sheer joy of Summer in the city, here almost at the outset we enter into five pages of controlled satirical fury – Moses speaks of how the black man should rejoice for it is his labour that makes the city function, him that sees the pre-dawn hours and is privileged to work when others sleep. From the second page of that passage:

Strangers to London – even bona fide Londoners too – have been heard to remark that they can’t see the hordes of black faces what supposed to clutter the vast metropolis. Ah, but at what time of day do they make this observation? If they had to get their arses out of bed in the wee hours, if they had to come out of cosy flat and centrally-heated hallways to face the onslaught of an icy north wind and trudge through the sludge and grime of a snow-trampled pavement, they would encounter black man and woman by the thousands.

This section continues for another three pages after this harsh punchline, culminating in the coldly ironic observation that if the white population knew how good the blacks had it then it would be the whites themselves who would rise up in revolution.

The early part of the work is then fairly philosophical in tone, Moses reflects on the world, now that he is a landlord he finds himself treated with a new respect, better treated than other blacks, he has money in his pocket and as landlord has power over his tenants. Moses is no longer servant to others, indeed he now has a servant himself:

All these [domestic] arrangements were attended to by my man Friday, a white immigrant named Bob from somewhere in the Midlands, who came to seek his fortunes in London. My blood take him because he was a good worker, young and strong, and he put down three weeks’ rent in advance. By the time the three weeks was up he was spitting and polishing all over the house, tearing down old wallpaper and putting up new ones, painting and puttying, sweeping and scrubbing. He was a willing worker, eager to learn the ways of the Black man.

The only thing I didn’t like about him was he went out most evenings and come back pissed, drunk like a lord. As we became good friends, or rather Master and Servant, I try to convert him from the evils of alcohol, but it was no use.

I decided to teach him the Bible when I could make the time.

Again, we are in the realm of vicious satire, we have an express reference to Robinson Crusoe and a clear inversion of the traditional white stereotypes of the black man. Throughout the novel, the relationship between Moses and Bob is a caustic reminder of the normal depiction of the black character in fiction of this period.

As the novel continues, it becomes more plot driven, Moses has among his tenants a black power group residing in his basement, Kid Galahad from the first novel returns, now as a fashionably dressed black power activist shouting slogans and seeking Moses’ financial backing for the movement. Brenda, a young female activist, moves into the basement to run the movement’s activities, but soon starts sleeping with both Moses and his man Bob. Selvon is generally good at sketching characters – Moses himself, Bob, Kid Galahad with his appeals to black solidarity which always amount to a request for funds, unfortunately Brenda is a crude depiction of a woman who is routinely sexually available at the whim of the male characters and who in a bizarre scene appears to get turned on by Bob attempting to sexually assault her and so allows herself to be seduced by Moses. Apparently, a feminist later slapped Selvon in the face for his depictions of women in his work, and based on his depictions of them in this novel I can’t say that was wholly unfair. I will return to this later however, as other interpretations of Brenda as a character are possible.

Moses becomes unwillingly involved in the black power movement, going on a demo out of curiosity and being swept up in the police response, which leads to his arrest even though he is not among those breaking the law. Moses activities throughout this work brush against criminality, often through little choice of his own, and Selvon uses this as an opportunity to explore relationships between the black community and the police in this period – relationships that at the risk of veering into the personal I can attest (having grown up in this part of London in the 1970s ) are pretty accurately captured:

I don’t know about you, but when you are a black man, even though you abide by the laws you are always wary of the police. It does not occur to you that there could be any casual contact, or innocent, or even self-beneficial. It got angelic saints who would be standing up talking about God and Jesus Christ in reverential tones, and they see a policeman in the offing, and the meeting break up, evaporate without trace.

As I noted at the outset, Moses being a man of property is better treated than other blacks, has come to regard himself as superior to many of them. The police act as a sharp reminder that to many in the white community, whatever he may have achieved, he is to them just another black face among many.

Other tenants also bring problems with them, again in a tone of bleak comedy, Moses becomes suspicious that two Pakistani tenants are running a people smuggling operation, using his house as part of a route through which new Pakistani and Indian immigrants are brought illegally into the UK. Moses gets to know one of these men, observing him sacrificing a sheep in the back garden (this is probably based on a real incident of this kind which I recall from childhood) and experiencing a mixture of curiosity, fear and animosity towards these new arrivals and their to him peculiar customs, just as once the white population did with him.

Much of this is very funny, where it works less well however is that the depictions of the Pakistanis are again not as convincing as some of the other portraits in this work. One, referred to as Paki (which, for the benefit of any non-UK readers, is today considered a very racist term), mentions how he does not need sleep as he can go into a trance and meditate. Although ostensibly a Muslim, Paki practices yoga which is of course a Hindu practice and what appears to be Buddhist style meditation. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of this work comes with an essay from Hari Kunzru which, although generally favourable, suggests that Selvon himself might not have inquired much more into the realities of the different Indian subcontinent populations than did his character Moses, this may be fair, though as with Brenda other interpretations are possible and I shall return to this issue also.

So, by now I have suggested that in this work Selvon manages to be both racist and sexist, which is an unfortunate charge sheet. Leaving aside other possible takes on those elements, is it then worth reading? Definitely, although I did not enjoy this as much as The Lonely Londoners, it does still have a great deal to say and it is often very funny when saying it. In examining the strained relationship between established and new waves of immigrants, Selvon investigates a topic that is all too often ignored but which remains highly relevant, few after all have more to lose from the arrival of new populations than those who have only just begun to feel settled themselves and racism can take more forms than simple prejudice from natives to immigrants – prejudice between disparate immigrant populations is real too.

Selvon is also in fine form on the generational conflicts within the black community, most evidenced in the mocking regard in which Brenda holds Moses, she may sleep with him but she shows him little respect. The movement sees him as a source of funds, but it is clear that to them he is yesterday’s man, valuable for his newfound prosperity but otherwise a dinosaur. Perhaps with Brenda’s sexuality Selvon was seeking to depict a new kind of woman, a woman who chose with whom she wanted to sleep and who was not merely an object for the pleasure of others, a woman of a sort that was emerging in this period into public consciousness. If so, I don’t think he succeeded, but when he succeeds at so much else it is not for me a fatal flaw.

Moses himself also remains a fascinating character, particularly here steeped as he is in bitterness, resentment against his own community and suspicion of the new world he sees forming around him. His misadventures as he seeks to understand his Pakistani tenants, and so gets sucked into their illegal operations, are genuinely funny as are the myriad ways in which the black power movement exploit him against his will. Moses now is subject not only to alienation by reason of race, but also by reason of his age.

Selvon uses Moses in another interesting way, as a vehicle through which to explore the black literary voice and the black experience of 1970s Britain after some twenty years of integration. Moses’ literary voice is ridiculed for its failure to follow conventional rules of grammar, the concept of a black voice which does not follow a white created norm does not yet exist, and Moses finds himself prone to fits of despair as he contemplates both his life as a writer and his life as a black man in a country which for all he has more respect than formerly still considers him a second class citizen.

The experience of that policeman coming and knocking at my door and asking all of them rarse questions had me depress. I don’t know if I can describe it properly, not being a man of words, but I had a kind of sad feeling that all black people was doomed to suffer, that we would never make any headway in Brit’n. As if it always have a snag, no matter how hard we struggle or try to stay out of trouble. After spending the best years of my life in the Mother Country it was a dismal conclusion to come to, making you feel that one and one make zero. It wasn’t so much depression as sheer terror really, to see your life falling to pieces like that.

What particularly strikes me in the above quote, is that of course a man of words is precisely what Moses does see himself as. Moses spends his days writing his memoirs, consider himself an unrecognised literary talent, an author. To say as he does here that he is not a man of words is to make a declaration of despair. It is a subtle note, and shows again how Selvon can bury tragedy within a sentence such that if you do not read closely you may never realise it is there.

Selvon then continues to mix anger, injustice, farce and comedy. Moses Ascending is full of jokes, ranging from lengthy set pieces with complex set-ups to one-liners which as here literally made me laugh out loud:

I try to get the double bed but the store say they can’t deliver before 1984, and my lease would expire before that.

I have rarely seen the problems of the Britain of the 1970s captured with such precision as Selvon manages in that one sentence.

Before I finish on this work, I wanted to return to my earlier charges of racism and sexism. Moses is a writer, working on his memoirs. His manuscript appears to be The Lonely Londoners, existing itself within the fiction, and Moses Ascending appears also to exist both as the fiction and as the work of Moses within the fiction. In reading Selvon we are reading Moses. This reopens questions of whether it is right to ascribe to Selvon the difficulties with depictions of women and Pakistanis referred to above, is Moses after all a reliable narrator? When women and Asians are objectified, is this Selvon objectifying or Moses? Is it intentional?

I think there is a genuine question there, but at the same time I think that if Selvon is attempting to reflect Moses’ own sexism and racism through the seemingly objective descriptions of female and Asian characters, he does not wholly succeed, I found these passages awkward and whatever Selvon’s intention may have been I think the result is problematic. As such, Moses Ascending is to me more a work of its time than was The Lonely Londoners, which I think was such a success as to wholly transcend the time of its creation. For all that, I am eager to read Moses Migrating, the third of the trilogy, and although I have reservations here that I did not have with the Lonely Londoners I also think this is a novel that manages to communicate anger and sadness both while remaining very funny and finding genuinely new things to say.

Moses Ascending

4 Comments

Filed under London, Selvon, Sam, Vernacular

I knocked at a second-floor flat in a dreary house, one of two hundred in a dreary Catford street.

So starts the second of Derek Raymond’s factory novels, The Devil’s Home on Leave, uncoincidentally enough the second Derek Raymond novel I have read and while for me not as interesting as his first (He Died with His Eyes Open, which I have also written about here) I did enjoy it enough to order the two remaining factory novels on finishing this one.

He Died with his Eyes Open was an investigation into how one lives with the knowledge of personal mortality and the instrinsic meaninglessness of life. It’s answer, in large part, was that it didn’t much matter as any answer was itself meaningless. The Devil’s Home on Leave addresses some similar concerns, but looks more at questions of the banality of evil and at the sheer ugliness of much of humanity. Like its predecessor, it is a pitiless novel, one in which we are deeply flawed animals fuelled by guilt, greed, lust and fear. This is a theme that will later be picked up by authors such as David Peace, and Derek Raymond strikes me very strongly as a natural precursor to Peace.

Devil is a crime novel. It’s nameless protagonist is a police sergeant working in the Unexplained Deaths department in a police station known colloquially as The Factory. The department investigates deaths nobody cares about, here a murder of an unknown victim who was left neatly boiled and jointed in five stapled carrier bags in a disused warehouse. Within a handful of pages, the protagonist has worked out that this would have been a professional hit and who given the nature of the scene the hitman would have been. This is not, therefore, a whodunnit. It is, as is often the case with intelligent crime fiction, a whydunnit and even more it is an investigation into the nature of the sort of person who could do something of this kind.

Raymond’s protagonist is a man motivated by the desire for truth, by the desire to give voice to the nameless people whose deaths he investigates, and by his own crushing guilt over the death of his daughter at the hands of his mentally ill wife. He is a man utterly without personal ambition, notably so to the frustration of his superiors given his evident talent. Early on, as he once again argues with a superior we have the following exchange:

‘Anyway’, he added, ‘ if you will stay a sergeant you’ll always get the shitty end of the stick.’
‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘ but I think that’s the end where the truth is.’

The Devil’s Home on Leave is a reference to the novel’s other main character, the killer himself, a brutal and vindictive sociopath who as portrayed is profoundly human and yet who also is profoundly damaged and outside the normal range of human behaviours and emotions. This is no Hannibal Lecter, the killer in this novel is in many ways pathetic and violence for him is in part a way of avoiding acknowledging his own inadequacies. Much as He Died with His Eyes Open was a study of the victim in that novel, The Devil’s Home on Leave is a study of the mind of the killer. In He Died, we examine why a man lived in such a way as to lead to the terrible death he experienced. In Devil’s Home, we examine why a man lives in such a way that he can commit such a terrible crime. In neither case is the reader provided with much by way of comfort in the answers to these questions.

A key early entry into the mind of the killer comes through our protagonist, who on surveying the scene of the crime imagines himself as the killer and thinks in his voice (it’s worth noting that this was a much more unusual concept in 1984 when this novel was first published than it is today). This leads to a six page stream of consciousness, almost a prose poem, in which the protagonist deduces the identity of the killer (who is already known to the police and therefore whose file the sergeant has previously read in relation to other matters) while observing the scene. The killer thinks he is smart, indeed thinks he is brilliant, but his obsessive regard for detail and his desire to show how clever he is has led to his being as easily identified as if he had left his fingerprints at the scene.

The investigation then is why, why this victim was killed and who paid for that killing. This investigation takes the sergeant into a network of connections between traditional East End villains, high-security research facilities and ultimately connections into government itself as our protagonist finds that his crime is but a small part of a much larger offence. The investigation is interesting in itself, but it is far from the most interesting thing about this novel.

As this investigation develops, we learn of the sergeant’s own relationship with his ex-wife Edie, now incarcerated in an asylum where she barely recognises him and where the inmates are stripped (more by their own madness than any cruelty of the staff) of any trace of human dignity. After a painful encounter in which she screams and in which he notices, when the nurses lift her dress to sedate her, that she has traces of her own excrement smeared on her buttocks:

I went back to London. I thought, what’s the point of going to see her any more? She doesn’t know me.
She murdered our daughter back in 1979. Her name was Dahlia, after Edie’s favourite flower. Edie pushed her under a bus, like that, in the street, because the child had picked up a bar of chocolate as they went past the shelves in the supermarket and hidden it, and there had been a stupid row with the manageress. Dahlia was nine.
I choked on my grief behind the windscreen as soon as I was alone, a vague face among other faces in other cars in the heavy traffic.

The sergeant’s guilt at the death of his daughter, at the sheer pointlessness and stupidity of it, runs through the novel. A few pages later, haunted by the image of his daughter as he tries to sleep, he reflects:

Yes, there used to be dignity in life, and I would die if I thought that would bring it back. I often wonder what people think a police officer is and how he thinks, or whether they believe he thinks at all. They just see the helmet, or the warrant card, and trouble. But we take risks. Some of us go into places because we must, whatever’s waiting there. I would give my life to have my little girl back again, but all I can do in the anticlimax that life is without her is to do what I believe to be right in the face of evil. So old fashioned! But I have only dreams and memories of my daughter to fall back on now – dreams where I see her like a bird, flying free and happy in the face of my trouble.
Yes, I used to pick her up and sing to her before I had to leave and report for duty – at Old Street, that was. But I never managed to protect her and love her as I should have because I was too anxious for my career. So now I feel the arms of others round me in the place of her arms, and know that, because of my ambition, I went off to work that day and so let Edie kill Dahlia because I was too proud ever to admit to myself that I knew Edie was mad.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Raymond’s protagonist then is driven by guilt, a guilt that has consumed him driving him to find the truth of lonely deaths and causing him to put aside all desires he might have had for his own life. He feels guilt for the death of his daughter which he failed to prevent, and guilt for all the other deaths before and after that he also failed to prevent. In contrast, quite intentional contrast I believe, the killer is a man wholly without guilt. A man without any conscience at all, touchy and proud and sensitive to every slight to the point that he will kill a man over an insult. He is in some respects the antithesis of the protagonist (though not neatly in all respects, the novel is not that pat), and conversations between him and the sergeant form much of the heart of the work as the sergeant gently applies pressure in the hope of eliciting a confession or a lead to evidence that could help prove the case.

As ever, I do not intend here to disuss the plot of the novel, in any event in this work the plot is hardly the point. Instead, as is typical of the roman noir, this is an exploration of frailty and ugliness. A banal brutality which can sometimes evoke pity (in the character of the killer’s own ex-wife, a drunk who lives in terror of his return, his relationship with her in some ways the mirror of the protagonist’s with his wife), but all too often merely prompts loathing. This is a work of profound moral disgust, disgust with humanity and with what we do to ourselves. Even minor characters are unsympathetic, a WPC is described as follows:

She was a hard-looking woman in her thirties with about as much pity in her face as an empty plate.

The landscape the characters walk through is as brutalist in its way as the people who inhabit it. The view from the killer’s wife’s window:

Outside it was raining bitterly across a barren park where the grass had been trudged away by the aimless feet of the unemployed until the ground was just mud. I got up and went to look out through the rain. Below me a man spread his rags to show his chest as if it were a really fine day. His red lips gaped open inside his curly beard; the mouth closed only when it encountered the neck of the bottle that he kept picking up from the bench beside him. Rain ran over him, sliding down his ribs, subtle as a blackmailer.

The few alleviants to the ugliness are themselves not exactly pretty. Early on a conversation between two officers about a man who murdered his girlfriend, ex-wife and daughter becomes a morbid joke due to the council failing to clean up the scene after the bodies were removed:

Anyway, nobody did clean up; that was why, when two squatters, a girl and a feller, broke into the flat, the girl had a heart attack.
‘Teach the bastards to respect council property,’ Bowman said when I told him about it.

Later a desultory conversation with a now crippled ex-officer reveals a common interest in literature between him and the proganist, an interest that only the ex-officer really has time for now that without his legs he is no longer able to serve on the Force.

As moments of light relief go, it is fair to say they are not as light as they might be. The novel also contains a moment of quite unintended black comedy, as two characters at one point discuss the possibility of the police being granted the power to hold suspects for seven days without charge. This is portrayed (rightly in my view, but I digress from literature there) as a massive breach of civil liberties. The unintended comedy is that today police can hold suspects for 28 days without charge and that powers of indefinite house arrest without trial exist and have been used in the UK. I suspect Raymond’s intent with the seven days scene was not for the reader to look back at what would now seem a blow for civil liberties rather than a blow against.

Which takes me to the part of the novel which is most interesting and which sadly I cannot really describe without ruining it for anyone who might read this and then read the novel itself. The end. Raymond has much to say about guilt and culpability, about responsibility, and much of what he has to say he works into the end of the novel in a way that has great power because of all that has gone before, much of which until then may have seemed reasonably standard crime fare. Unfortunately, and unsatisfyingly, I can’t really disuss how he achieves this, as to do so could damage its effect. Suffice it to say then that this is a work about human evil, and the killer’s evil so painstakingly examined during the course of the work is but one example of such and perhaps not the most terrible.

It’s hard to say one enjoys a novel like The Devil’s Home on Leave, and yet it is a satisfying work. Raymond has an excellent eye for his characters, which are convincing and drawn from life (unsurprisingly, given Raymond spent much of his life with villains of the sort he depicts). The portrait of the killer is detailed and persuasive, unlike say in Patricia Highsmith one never feels the slightest sympathy with the killer, rather he is a horrific figure that provokes loathing in the reader (well, in this reader anyway). The terrible guilt of the protagonist seeps through the pages, making him comprehensible while keeping him as far from the normal world of the reader’s experience as the killer himself. All this is accomplished stuff, and while I did not find it as intriguing as I did He Died with His Eyes Open my time on it was well spent. For the curious, by all accounts the fourth of the factory novels is the best regarded, and with that to look forward to I intend to continue exploring Raymond’s work (including, in due course, his non-factory novels).

The Devil’s Home on Leave

Leave a comment

Filed under British crime fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, London, Noir, Raymond, Derek

Come back by the two and six ear

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

The Lonely Londoners is probably the best book I have read in months, and given how much I read in the average month that is no small statement for me to make.

The Lonely Londoners is one of the earlier novels of Sam Selvon, and was first published in 1956. Sam Selvon was a Trinidadian writer by origin, who moved to London in 1950 at around the age of 27. It is a largely plotless novel about the characters and experiences of the West Indian and African diaspora as it came to London in the 1950s, the Windrush generation, a generation that found itself none too welcome among the host population.

The Lonely Londoners is in part a love letter to London, it is in part an exercise in the sheer joy of language (most particularly in the form of a single ten page long unpunctuated sentence celebrating life and the English summer and the pleasures and absurdities of London life), it is an examination of the lives of immigrant men dwelling in poverty with blighted prospects, it is a subtle examination of the effects of racism (without ever falling into didacticism) and it is also extremely funny.

The novel is written in a form of Trinidadian creole, essentially in the language of its characters. Apparently Selvon started to write it in conventional English, but found that the story he wanted to tell could not be told in that voice. By using the language of the characters, he brings them and their world to life, but also brings to life their way of viewing the world – we see through their eyes as we see through their words. By using creole as a term here incidentally I am not implying a crudeness of language, this is in fact a very sophisticated work in which each word is carefully chosen with a view to its precise effect. Great care is taken over the language in this novel, and in some senses more than anything else this is a novel of language, a novel one reads as much for the use of language as for the content that language carries.

The central character, and occasional narrative voice, is Moses Aloetta. Moses is a long established immigrant who acts as a first point of introduction for many men as they arrive in London, and who sits at the heart of the Caribbean expat social scene. Moses is a guide to London for them, and a guide to them for us, and the divide between authorial voice and Moses’s voice is frequently very thin indeed. Moses appears in two subsequent novels, making The Lonely Londoners part of a trilogy though it stands perfectly well alone and I suspect was originally envisaged as a stand alone novel.

Moses is patient, hard working, wrly humorous, aware of his own failings and of everyone else’s yet tolerant of them all. He helps new arrivals, though he sometimes has to wait some time for his thanks, and comments philosophically on London life and the English. The symbolism of his name, given his status as a guide to the promised Land of London, I think rather speaks for itself.

There is a large cast of other characters, and typically we spend some time with a character experiencing their story and then leave them to see another story. Characters recur as minor figures within each other’s tales, but essentially this book is close to a short story collection set in a single milieu with an overlapping cast. Many characters are known by nicknames, Galahad, Cap, Big City, Five past Midnight, and characters are frequently larger than life with comic failings.

So, we have Galahad, a new arrival to London, confident and boastful. He feels no cold in the winter, yet freezes in the Summer. He comes to Moses certain that he is need of no assistance to cope with London, but within minutes of leaving Moses’ flat he is so intimidated that he can barely function and is grateful when Moses who has anticipated this follows him and assists him with such basics as how to get a bus to the labour exchange.

We have Cap, a Nigerian by origin, a man with only one suit which he washes each night and wears again the next day. So charming he always has a woman or two in tow, and spends his life moving from hotel to hotel staying without charge by dint of his charm and moving on when the demands for payment become too great. Cap lives large, and seems to have a better life despite utter poverty than the more hard working characters. Certainly he has more women.

Tolroy, who goes to Waterloo to pick up his mother fresh from Jamaica, only to find she has brought the entire family with her. Tanty, an elderly relative of Tolroy’s who came with his mother and who dominates all around her in friendly but irresistible fashion.

Bart, a man so mean that if he leaves his flat hungry with a pound in his pocket but meets a penniless friend on the way to breakfast, he will go without rather than share with that friend. Harris, a man who has become Anglified and now throws social functions for the English, at which they have a chance to dance to calypso and have a taste of Caribbean entertainment. Dances at which the Caribbean diaspora routinely turn up and enter without paying, to Harris’s eternal anguish. He walks of course with a copy of the Times furled in his pocket, more English than the English themselves. Daniel, who always spends to impress. Lewis, a gullible man who destroys his marriage through senseless jealousy. Big City, who is rude throughout the week except shortly after payday. Five Past Midnight, who asks everyone for money so much that everyone now asks him for money immediately on meeting him, so as to suggest they are broke themselves.

As the above shows, there is a profusion of characters, and in this the novel reminds me more than anything else of the works of Damon Runyon. Characters are frequently identified by a relatively small set of traits, with the exception of Moses we see no inner lives, we see them as others do and so we do not see their subtleties. Characters are comic, their failings cause for comedy, yet also they are tragic and their lives sometimes desperate. Bart falls in love with a White girl (Beatrice), is rejected by her family and is abandoned by her for a man she meets at the bus stop. He then recurs throughout the novel seeking her among London’s millions, never finding her. A character moved from the comedy of his miserliness to the tragedy of his unrequited love. Characters speak bravely, in a larger than life fashion and with braggadocio, but their lives often fail to live up to their words. All of this is deeply Runyonesque, a cast of comic characters who fall into tragedy and where the language they speak is as much the point as what they actually choose to say.

The key difference to Runyon lies in how the characters come to this life. In Runyon, the characters are chancers and criminals. Grifters and con artists. Theirs is a life of trying to get by on the margins because they have chosen that life. In The Lonely Londoners, the characters have made no such choice, rather it has been chosen for them.

Early on in the novel we are in Waterloo as Moses waits for Galahad and observes with humour Tolroy’s bewilderment as the arriving train disgorges his entire family. As they wait a journalist speaks to the new arrivals, seeking a piece for his paper. To the English they are all Jamaican, the natives cannot (or will not) distinguish between the different Islanders and unwittingly turn that one nationality into a generic term for all the new arrivals. The reporter spots the family, talks to them without really listening to the replies and then seeks a photo. The family pose, Tanty making sure she has a smart hat on, proud to be spoken to politely by this gentleman. The headline the next day is “Now, Jamaican families come to Britain.”

The characters puzzle as to why the natives appear to fear them, Moses at one point saying “Well, as far as I could figure, they frighten that we get job in front of them, though that does never happen.” There is resentment that other immigrants are treated preferentially, even though the Islanders themselves are part of the Commonwealth and bled in the war for Britain. Big City plays the pools every week and dreams should he win of buying a street of houses for the boys (the term they use throughout the novel to describe themselves, of which more later) and erecting a notice in the street saying “Keep the Water Coloured, No Rooms for Whites.”

The characters pursue local women, but the women they get prefer the boys to be savages than civilised people. “…people wouldn’t believe you when you tell them the things that happen in the city but the cruder you are the more the girls like you you can’t put on any English accent for them or play ladeda or tell them you are studying medicine in Oxford or try to be polite and civilise they don’t want that sort of thing at all they want you to live up to the films and stories they hear about black people living primitive in the jungles of the world…” (that last excerpt is from the ten page prose poem that forms one of the most impressive parts of the book).

Perhaps saddest of all in that vein is Moses’ comment that sometimes when he goes out White people try to buy drugs off him, though he doesn’t himself use them. The assumption is that because he is Black, he can obtain them.

Racism is a constant companion in the book, unavoidably so as it shapes the characters lives in almost every respect. Their opportunities for work, their relationships, the accommodation they can find, there is even preference for overt racism as it saves wasting time applying for flats or jobs that will never be granted to them because of their colour. In one passage Galahad externalises his own colour, addressing Black as if it were a person and blaming it for his troubles, it is not him who is hated, rather it is Black itself.

Despite this, as noted above this is not a didactic novel. Racism is a fact of their lives, it is part of their world and so it is in the novel. But the tragedies of the novel tend to be human ones, and the triumphs similarly. The tale of how Tanty uses the tube and takes a bus ride is both hugely funny and quite celebratory, a matter of no consequence becomes a tale of heroic fortitude and bravery. Harris trying to maintain dignity at his dance while Five past Midnight does his best to wind him up is a great comic scene. The title of this blog entry comes from a piece of dialogue between Bart and Cap:

“Only feller who ever tap Bart was Cap, and that happen in the very early days. Cap broach Bart and ask him to lend him two and six.

‘Eh?’ Bart say, playing as if he can’t hear, and putting his hand on his ear and cocking it up.

‘I ask you to lend me two and six’ Cap say. (Cap would try to borrow from Mr Macmillan if he get the chance).

‘Eh? What you say?’ Bart turn the other ear to Cap and cock it up. ‘I can’t hear well.’

‘I ask you to lend me five shillings,’ Cap say loudly.

‘Come back by the two and six ear’, Bart say, turning his head again.”

And if you can’t see echoes of Runyon in that exchange, I suggest you go back and read Runyon some more (actually, I suggest that anyway, hugely underrated writer these days).

The characters of the diaspora are referred to generally as the boys, a term which captures the mixture of innocence and fecklesness which many of the characters exhibit (as well, presumably, as being an acceptable usage of the time within the community). They are also referred to as tests, or frequently simply as Spades (a term which interestingly does not appear to have racist connotations at this point, which if I recall correctly it certainly did by say the mid 1980s if not earlier). With the exception of Tanty, there are few female characters, the boys are not attached by and large to the girls they pick up and the diaspora is primarily male in nature.

Selvon’s characters are not strictly realistic, that is not to say they are unrealistic, rather that pure naturalism is not his goal. They are exaggerated, they are seen through their most salient characteristics rather than as rounded human beings. They are, in large part, comic. All that said, Selvon shows great affection for them, in all their failings, and there is a very real sense in which the characters are given a fundamental human dignity. A respect which the world they inhabit does not afford them. In this, although I agree with the foreword in the Penguin edition that this is not simply a work of social realism, Selvon does give a voice to those who otherwise would not have one and shows that in their absurdities and shortcomings they are indeed real human beings with ambitions and dreams and that though the particularities of those dreams may vary the essential humanity of them does not.

As is often the case with Penguin, there is an excellent foreword. Here it is by Susheila Nasta, and I felt it through useful light on the novel and the use of language within it. Forewords vary greatly in quality, I thought this one of the better ones I have read recently.

Looking above, I still have a feeling that I have missed the heart of the novel, that it slips away as I try to capture it. The heart of it is its language, the prose and the choice of words and the astonishing ten page poem which celebrates everything contained in the novel in one breathless outpouring of consciousness. The novel contains many serious elements, not all of which I have gone into in this blog entry (it speaks about how our lives do not reflect our plans and of how change comes to us whether we wish it or not, for example), and it contains large quantities of the comic and the absurd also (trapping seagulls for food, among many fine moments).

This is a novel with no real beginning, merely an arbitrary start point. It doesn’t really end, everyone gathers on a Sunday at Moses’ as they do every Sunday, a community ritual, and the novel ends at one such gathering. Nothing really happens. Characters do not have realisations about themselves, internal dilemmas are not faced and resolved, life simply is and continues in all its messy and humdrum glory. All we are left with is the voices of the boys echoing and a great restlessness of lives being lived and laughing because it’s preferable to crying.

12 Comments

Filed under London, Runyon, Damon, Selvon, Sam, Vernacular

The revolution will not be televised

Last night I finished Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, My Revolutions, recently out in paperback (with a cover which isn’t nearly as good as it had in the hardback, but there you go).

It’s a novel about activism in turn of the 70s London, particularly Notting Hill, and in part about the world that activism gave birth to (or failed to prevent) as the novel alternates between the life of the protagonist in the late 60s and early 70s and his life under an assumed identity in the late 1990s.

Although I dislike autobiography in blogs, it’s rather unavoidable here. I grew up in Notting Hill and North Kensington in the 70s and 80s (after the period of this novel, but in a world its characters would have recognised) and my mother and stepfather were part of the counterculture, being involved in squatter’s rights protests and co-operative movements and the various causes of the day. As such, the world depicted in the novel is in large part one that is very familiar to me from childhood. That does allow me at least to say that those parts of the novel which deal with matters with which I am personally familiar, are pretty much right.

The novel opens with its protagonist, now named Mike Frame, living in Chichester with a woman who has a vaguely Body Shop-esque small business which is doing increasingly well and her daughter, Sam, a 20 year old with the ambition of becoming a corporate lawyer. This part of the novel is set in the late 1990s, before 9/11, during that brief period in which the end of history was hailed as having arrived and many thought we were post-ideological. Within a handful of pages, we learn that Mike Frame is not who he claims to be, that he was once someone quite different, that this is about to be revealed and his life and that of his partner and his step-daughter will be shattered as his past becomes known. A past he has never shared with them.

I don’t wish to get overly into the details of the plot here, it’s not complex and some may read this who prefer to avoid that kind of disclosure, however in broad terms we follow Mike’s flight in the late 1990s and his thoughts on the world, his relationships and those around him while simultaneously we also follow his passage from being a student radical in the late 60s to his becoming an armed radical in the early 70s. We see his seduction as a young man by fatal purity, the lure of simplicity, and by contrast the ideological bankruptcy of the future his earlier self could never have imagined.

I’m going to discuss the issues the two time periods in the novel raise separately here, although in the novel they are of course intertwined.

Taking first the late 1990s part of the novel, Mike Frame is a man who has withdrawn from politics and from activism entirely. His partner, Miranda, is a woman focused on (faux-)authenticity, she hangs a dream-catcher in the bedroom, she is fond of objects she perceives as “ethnic” or “natural”, she regards herself as socially concerned. Her business is taking off, she drives a BMW, she is a successful product of her age and she is an example of the commoditisation of the counterculture. She is organised, efficient, modern, all of which is summarised for me in a wonderful line where Mike contemplates what is coming and muses “Poor Miranda, no amount of Post-its will ward off what’s about to happen to you.” She has a lifestyle.

Miranda’s daughter, who Mike has come to see as his own, is also a product of her age. Sam is 20 years old, her dreams are not of social change or of revolution but of becoming a corporate lawyer. She contrasts in the novel with Mike’s earlier self, Chris Carver, who in his early 20s wants to make a better world and is potentially willing to die to achieve that end. Sam is apolitical, viewing her parent’s vaguely right-on sentiments as essentially quaint. She is content with the world as it is, and does not enquire too deeply into what kind of world that is. At one point Mike considers her life and comments on her wanting boyfriends who were the sort who would meet her in the pub and talk of holidays and jobs.

Miranda and Sam fill dual roles in the novel, they are characters in Mike’s life and they are examples of categories of people, of ideas even. Part of the success of the novel is that Kunzru succeeds in making them both. They do carry important ideas, but remain convincing as characters in their own right and Mike’s relationship with them broadly persuades. That said, it is difficult (it was for me anyway) to read the early pages of the novel and the descriptions of Miranda and Sam without feeling a sense of anger at the sheer vacuity of their world. At its empty consumerism and at the commoditisation of experience.

Miranda considers herself as someone in touch with the authentic, the natural, but while that may once have been true (but probably wasn’t) she is by the time we meet her simply a producer and consumer of the myth of authenticity. Her authentic experiences are purchased, she is ignorant of history and has no interest in it, her contact with other culture’s experiences of the world are mediated through commercial exchanges. She is an example of the way in which late 20th Century capitalism co-opted the ideals of the counterculture, repackaged them and sold them to increasingly middle-aged ex-hippies who now had semi-detached houses and four-wheel drive cars. The revolution has in fact been televised, rebranded and has become a lifestyle option.

She is also of course simply a middle-aged woman with a small business who wishes a life which is comprehensible, interesting and enjoyable. A woman who cares for her family, and whose faults are ones of vanity and complacency, faults most of us share to some degree or other. It is all too easy to react to what she represents, and forget the person underneath the representation. This is, in my view, quite intentional as in inviting us to objectify Miranda as a character Kunzru invites us to commit the same error the earlier revolutionaries did – thinking of people in terms of what they symbolise rather than who they are. Forgetting their humanity, and so forgetting our own empathy.

Sam is a young woman who has grown up within that corporatised world, a woman to whom activism would mean buying a fair trade coffee from Starbucks. She is untroubled by concerns about the wider world, the issues which occupy her are personal rather than political. Again, one can take her at the symbolic level as an example of a person free of ideology, who benefits from a world order which places her in a position of wealth and comfort without questioning how that came about or who might be paying for it. Or one can simply see her as a young woman trying her best, as we all have to, to find her way in the world. She is also of course an inhabitant of the world the revolutionaries sought to create, either an example of how profoundly they failed or perhaps more interestingly an example of how they succeeded and the inhabitants of that new world are people that the revolutionaries themselves would never have tolerated (several times a key character in the novel comments that the post-revolutionary world will have no place in it for the revolutionaries themselves).

By contrast, in the late 60s and early 70s Mike Frame was Chris Carver. A young man from a working class family who becomes a CND activist, goes to university at the LSE, and from there falls into the world of anti-Vietnam protestors, squatter’s rights activists, collectives, escalating over time into participating in increasingly radicalised direct action groups and ultimately finding himself involved in bombing campaigns against a largely indifferent British establishment.

Much of this is based on real history, in particular the Angry Brigade who in the early 70s carried out a series of bombings on economic and political targets. Much else in the novel is based on non-violent groups of the time, and there is an acknowledgements section which briefly identifies the history drawn upon.

Carver’s journey is an interesting one, in part as where he ends up is plainly wrong, by the end he is in a group which is planting bombs and which may escalate into killing people, but it is difficult to say clearly at what point along the way it all goes wrong. At the start the CND and the student anti-Vietnam activists are dilettantes who achieve nothing but a feeling of self-satisfaction, they change nothing and their internal arguments and their mix of well-meaning sentiment and self-interest is neatly captured. From there Chris becomes involved in co-operative and activist movements which for a while do make some small differences, people are housed who otherwise might not have been, how much difference though is open to question and certainly they are making no systemic changes. By the time Chris has radicalised, he is helping nobody. The system still fails to change, lives are put at risk and some even die without anyone being helped by their actions at all. At some point Chris crosses a line from activist to terrorist, but the line is never really clear until he is well beyond it and the logic to him of each step along the way is hard for him to resist, and in this we are shown how easy it can be to move into territory which at the outset would have been regarded as horrific.

The activist groups themselves are well captured, in-fighting is constant, accusations and counter-accusations of how best to benefit the working class or to forward the causes of the revolution, suspicions of who might be working for the police and the intelligence services. As they become more radicalised, internal debates become more vicious, with “criticism-self-criticism” sessions in which those viewed as insufficiently revolutionary are humiliated and by which over time the group purges itself of all moderating influences. Ironically, in fighting what they regard as fascism the group Chris belongs to slowly becomes a microcosm of what it fights, as charismatic leaders demand ever stricter obedience to increasingly puritanical concepts of revolution and dissent becomes more and more ruthlessly crushed.

Central to all this is the figure of Anna, a revolutionary young woman that Chris loves and who is at the heart of the group’s increasing radicalisation, a woman who he believes died in 1975 during an armed occupation of the German embassy in Copenhagen, but who he discovers may in fact be alive after all.

The novel also contains many other small elements which add to its veracity, Chris’s discomfort on going into an Afro-Caribbean cafe on the All Saint’s Road, his estrangement from his family, in both his committment to what he regards as the cause of the working class doesn’t remotely help him deal with anyone actually belonging to it. Equally the character who starts out as a student radical, but ends up as a New Labour junior minister for police affairs is all too familiar as an example of the individuals who are actually in the government today, many of whom walked precisely that particular road. Generally the novel’s smaller observations are interesting, and frequently quite subtle.

Moving on from the events in the novel itself, it is worth noting that although the “contemporary” elements of the novel are set in the late 90s, the novel was actually first published in 2007. Clearly, therefore, in writing about radicalisation Hari Kunzru is making a broader point than a purely historical description of 1970s socialism. Chris Carver starts out as a student activist, his radicalisation begins when he is arrested and wrongly convicted (with the police lying to get the “right” result at his trial) of assault following a demonstration outside the US embassy. Eventually it becomes clear that the police believed him to be a radical, treated him accordingly and so inadvertently turned him into a real one. The parallels with current events need hardly be underlined.

This is a highly readable novel, the language is skilful without being showy and the milieu Chris and his later self Mike inhabit is believably depicted. The radicalisation of Chris and his colleagues is gradual, and balances the seeming inevitability of their destination with the fact that along the way many characters in the novel see where the group is going and part company with them (or are ejected). Those parts of the novel I can speak to from personal experience, the Notting Hill of the 1970s, how policing was conducted in that period (which was different to how it is now, lessons were thankfully learned in the early 80s), the atmosphere in collectives and activist groups back then, the way in which Chris/Mike’s generation (which is my parent’s generation) moved from being radicals to being part of consumer culture, all of that is in my view spot on. That gives me confidence in those parts I can’t speak to – the depiction of the radical groups that embrace violence. Those I grew up with were all committed pacifists, which they viewed as central to their ideology, a belief which the book also picks up on as most of the activist community comes to be as appalled by Chris and his group as is wider society and regard them as sabotaging that which the wider activist community is working for. In turn, Chris and his group come to view other activists as essentially collaborators, so becoming increasingly divorced from any world beyond themselves.

The novel comes with no answers. Did the radicals change the world, even a little bit? Is Sam a product of their success or their failure? Did any of them achieve anything? Is Sam’s indifference to politics a sign of a better world, or are Sam and Miranda examples of how we have become comfortable with the injustices of the world we inhabit? The book also of course provides an indirect commentary on today’s radicals, on the anti-war activists, and of course on how some people when they perceive themselves as having no choice become radicalised and in the end commit terrible acts which betray everything they believe themselves to be working for.

I thought this a tremendous novel, one with much to say about the world we now inhabit, both in its corporate banality and in the way in which well meaning young men and women can move from being idealists to violent extremists. Along the way, it also sheds light on a now largely forgotten episode of British history, and one which (as history so often does) helps us understand better the present we now share.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Revolutions-Hari-Kunzru/dp/0141020202/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1216806016&sr=8-1

For the curious, the lyrics to Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The revolution will not be televised” can be found in full here: http://www.gilscottheron.com/lyrevol.html. They’re powerful lyrics, well worth a visit.

10 Comments

Filed under Kunzru, Hari, London, UK fiction