Category Archives: Selvon, Sam

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

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Filed under London, Selvon, Sam, Vernacular

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.

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