Category Archives: Vernacular

A place should never for too long go against its nature.

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.

City of Bohane is a swaggerer of a novel. It opens with that paragraph above, with one of the punchiest first lines I’ve read in a while, then we’re into prose with the rhythms of spoken word. That’s how you open a novel. No argument.

City-of-Bohane

City of Bohane is Barry’s first novel. It won him the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and favourable reviews nearly across the board. Not bad for what on paper at least is a fairly straightforward and highly cinematic noir-sf novel. It’s a reminder of a truth that always bears repeating. It doesn’t matter what a book’s about, what genres you can box it into or influences you can point to. What matters is if it’s any good.

The year is 2053 and we’re in the (fictional) Irish city of Bohane, named after the Bohane river and sitting on the edge of the Big Nothing bog. Ostensibly anyway, but in a sense none of that is true. In some ways the novel could just as well have been set in 1950s’ Cork, but then Barry would have had less freedom to invent, to make the familiar strange and new.

City of Bohane is set in 2053 because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular time (people use typewriters, not computers, nothing’s digital). It’s set in the City of Bohane because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular place (apparently he based the geography on Porto, in Portugal). This isn’t then a novel of time or place in the usual way, but rather it’s a dream Ireland, a movie Ireland. Barry is avoiding the limits of fact so that he can create a contemporary myth.

As I write this, it’s been around six weeks since I read Bohane. Since then I’ve read some poetry, a Kate Wilhelm SF novel, a Charles Willeford crime novel, an Elena Ferrante, a William Gibson and a volume of Proust. Even after all that, as soon as I turn my mind to it the characters and style of Bohane come rushing back to me, still vivid, still alive.

Logan Hartnett leads the Hartnett Fancy, a criminal gang that run much of Bohane with the bought complicity of the local politicians and press. He’s a tall and slender man, known as “the Long Fella”, dapper and deadly.

There’s been peace in Bohane, or as much peace as it sees, for a good few years now. That’s about to end. There’s trouble with the Northside Rises, slum estates run by their own semi-feudal gangs. They’re eyeing Logan and his territory with growing ambition.

At the same time, word has it that the Gant has returned, Logan’s old rival from decades back. Logan ousted the Gant from the city, and took the Gant’s girlfriend as his wife. Now Logan’s own lieutenants, Wolfie and Fucker Burke, and the inimitable but much-imitated Jenni Ching, are starting to wonder if his heart’s in it any more and if not if there might soon be room at the top.

Think HBO. Think series like Deadwood or The Shield or Boardwalk Empire. Those are the influences here. It’s that classic set-up of the aging boss pressed on all sides and from below at the same time. Set up the box-set next to the DVD player, sit back and watch the peace explode.

If City of Bohane were just a highly cinematic novel of gang politics and violence in a fictionalised Ireland it might still be very good, but it probably wouldn’t be winning literary prizes. The reason it did is the language, which crackles.

Above De Valera Street the sun climbed and caught on each of the street’s high windows and each whited out and was blinded by the glare; each became a brilliant, unseeing eye. The light seemed to atomise the very air of the place. The air was rich, maritime, nutritious. It was as if you could reach up and grab a handful of the stuff. The evil-eyed gulls were antic on the air as they cawed and quarrelled and the street beneath them was thick with afternoon life.
Yes and here they came, all the big-armed women and all the low-sized butty fellas. Here came the sullen Polacks and the Back Trace crones. Here came the natty Africans and the big lunks of bog-spawn polis. Here came the pikey blow-ins and the washed-up Madagascars. Here came the women of the Rises down the 98 Steps to buy tabs and tights and mackerel – of such combinations was life in the flatblock circles sustained. Here came the Endeavour Avenue suits for a sconce at ruder life. The Smoketown tushies were between trick-cycles and had crossed the footbridge to take joe and cake in their gossiping covens. The Fancy-boy wannabes swanned about in their finery and tip-tapped a rhythm with their clicker’d heels. De Valera Street was where all converged, was where all trails tangled and knotted, and yes, here came Logan Hartnett in the afternoon swell. He was …
Gubernatorial.

That’s a long quote, but I included it because it captures the cinematic (the defining word of this review) feel of the book. Like a David Simon series there’s little explanation here, the reader has to work out the language and the slang from context as they go along. Where are the Back Traces? What exactly is Smoketown? Where is Endeavour Avenue in relation to all this? None of it is explained, but then none of it needs to be because as you settle into the rhythms of Bohane it all starts to come together and after a while the slang of Bohane, like the slang of Baltimore, feels natural.

Let’s take another example. Here a secular prayer by the unnamed narrator:

Oh give us a grim Tuesday of December, with the hardwind taking schleps at our heads, and the rain coming slantways off that hideous fucking ocean, and the grapes nearly frozen off us, and dirty ice caked up top of the puddles, and we are not happy, exactly, but satisfied in our despair.
It is as though we can say …
Now!
D’ye see, now, what it is we are dealing with?

No wonder Irvine Welsh liked it.

The book thrums with beautiful turns of phrase, though beautiful isn’t quite the right word, perhaps resonant would be better. Take a sentence like “A pair of goons were arranged in violent lethargy by its stairwell entrance.” I love that use of “violent lethargy”. It sounds contradictory, but it’s no mere linguistic trick because I can picture exactly what he means: A brooding intent, a casual inherent violence ready to be unleashed at the smallest provocation.

At times Barry almost takes it too far. I noted this sentence: “Emptied wine sacks filled every gutter and diamonds of broken glass – Bohane gemstones – sparkled on the sidewalks.” At the time I read it I was impressed by the imagery. Reading it cold now it looks overblown and dangerously close to bathos, but in context it worked.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz Alfred Döblin used then contemporary cinematic techniques to inform his fiction (particularly montage). Barry does something similar. That first quote above is essentially a wide-angle take. Barry also makes frequent use of freeze-frame close-ups, particularly when describing clothing:

Wolfie wore: A neatly cut Crombie of confederate grey above green tweed peg pants, straight-legged, a starched white shirt, collar open to show a harlequin-patterned cravat, and a pair of tan-coloured arsekickers on the hooves that’d been imported from far Zagreb (them boys knew how to make a boot, was the Fancy’s reckon; if the Long Fella wasn’t walkin’ Portuguese, he was walkin’ Croat).

That’s fairly typical. When characters have been off-screen for a while, or something dramatic is about to happen, the action pauses and the text focuses in, describes in detail their clothes, boots, jewellery. Barry builds his world through accessories. What the characters wear is as important as what they do.

As you’d expect there’s some tremendous set-pieces. A gangland execution by Logan Hartnett is almost difficult to watch (sorry, read). A pitched battle between rival gangs is described entirely through photos being developed after the fact by a local journalist. The plot builds and thickens and as you get used to the characters in play Barry introduces a few more, each sharply drawn, so that by the end there’s a full and memorable cast.

The one drawback with Barry’s intensely cinematic world is that visual dramas tend to use shorthand, and shorthand tends towards stereotypes. People here are largely as you’d expect them to be. The Northside Rises are inhabited by semi-feral sink-estate dwellers straight out of a Daily Mail headline. The police are lunk-headed farmboys from the Irish interior. That’s all fine and works pretty well, but I was a little troubled by the “sand-pikeys”, a caricature of a traveller community straight out of a Mad Max movie speaking in cod-Jamaican patois and steeped in superstition and violence.

Ireland has a long history of discrimination against traveller communities, and “pikey” for those who don’t know it is a seriously offensive (and arguably racist) word. To have it used here for a group who seem to follow the stereotype is questionable, a little like a US novel featuring a group of casually violent but not very bright African-Americans. It’s not that you can’t do it, Chester Himes’ excellent Harlem Noir series has characters exactly like that (but not only like that). It’s just that when you put those characters in your book you are tapping in to some very unpleasant history and, potentially, prejudice.

Even with that potential sour note, this is still one of the freshest books I’ve read this year. It takes elements of SF, noir, and contemporary US drama and mixes them together as Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner back in the ’80s to create something new yet strangely familiar. I’ll end with one final quote:

A demon vision was to be seen come nightfall. From atop the high dunes, led by Prince Tubby, came a line four-dozen strong of sand-pikeys, and they were armed for Feudin’.
Carried hatchets and iron bars and lengths of ancient fender and blackthorn sticks soaked in brine for the hardness and bricks and shkelps and rocks and hammers and screwdrivers and they carried these items with a lovely … insouciance.
Fucker Burke and Logan Hartnett kept to the rear of the line.
Fucker carried a forlorn and puzzled air.
Logan carried a length of rope.

Other reviews

Oddly I’ve not seen much in the blogosphere. If you know of any please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, there’s a great review at the Guardian here though, and a fairly critical review from novelist Keith Ridgway in the Irish Times here.

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Irish fiction, SF, Vernacular

Packing was always a good time.

Factotum, by Charles Bukowski

Some authors just resonate. Not for everyone. But for their readers. It turns out that I’m one of Bukowski’s readers.

Back in December 2009 I read Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office. I wrote about it here and I ended that review by saying that Post Office was good art. Looking back I’m comfortable with that. It is.

Factotum came four years later and there’s a sense in which it’s more of the same. Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter-ego, wanders through a series of jobs and women not doing any too well with either. He’s mostly broke, mostly drunk and for a smart guy he’s none too smart.

Here’s the opening of the book. If this grabs you the rest will. If it doesn’t then it may be he just doesn’t resonate for you.

I arrived in New Orleans in the rain at 5 o’clock in the morning. I sat around in the bus station for a while but the people depressed me so I took my suitcase and went out in the rain and began walking. I didn’t know where the rooming houses were, where the poor section was.
I had a cardboard suitcase that was falling apart. It had once been black but the black coating had peeled off and yellow cardboard was exposed. I had tried to solve that by putting black shoepolish over the exposed cardboard. As I walked along in the rain the shoepolish on the suitcase ran and unwittingly I rubbed black streaks on both legs of my pants as I switched the suitcase from hand to hand.
Well, it was a new town. Maybe I’d get lucky.

Is it a spoiler to say he doesn’t get all that lucky?

Chinaski isn’t just smart, he’s educated too. He has two years of college behind him (which in one bakery job means he’s instantly promoted to being the guy who shovels coconut flakes into a machine that then sprinkles them over the cakes coming down the line).

For Chinaski though work is just something you do to make some money. If one job doesn’t work out you just do another (you can tell it’s written in a time of full employment). As far as Chinaski can see all those people around him working hard are just making money for some other guy up the chain. In one sense he’s right. In another sense not so much. They go home after all to something better than no dinner and wine so cheap you have to hold your nose to get it down.

The problem is the price paid. As Chinaski observes, “… it wasn’t enough to just do your job, you had to have an interest in it, even a passion for it.” That still holds true. Chinaski’s willing to trade his time for money. What he’s not so willing to do is trade who he is for it.

Like Post Office before it Factotum doesn’t have much of a plot. Chinaski gets a job, lazes around or turns up drunk and gets fired. He hooks up with women, but he doesn’t treat them too well and they don’t treat him much better. One, Jan, recurs through the book and is the closest he has to a serious relationship. Neither is faithful.

What makes all this more than just depressing is the writing and the honesty. Bukowski can write. Here’s two examples. In the first he’s ill and just been brought some soup to feed him back up:

I took the salt and pepper, seasoned the broth, broke the crackers into it, and spooned it into my illness.

In this second he describes a woman in a bar.

She was desperate and she was choosey at the same time and, in a way, beautiful, but she didn’t have quite enough going for her to become what she imagined herself to be.

What struck me about that first quote was its economy, coupled with that lovely and slightly poetic final image. The prose starts matter of fact, transparent and flat. Each action is clearly described and then there’s a burst of movement as broth flows down into an illness-fuelled appetite.

The second quote caught my attention for its pity and unsparing understanding. It’s desperately sad. There’s a certain compassion there, but more there’s a recognition of fact. A lack of sentiment.

Lack of sentiment is critical to Bukowski. I grew up, as I’ve probably mentioned before, on a council estate in London with my immediate parents (mother and step-father) unemployed. Bukowski writes about things I recognise from those days. He and Jan make what they call “pancakes” which are just flour and water mixed together and heated up. When I was a kid they were heated on the back of a frying pan. They’re cheap. Better if you have any butter left at all.

Chinaski and Jan use newspapers as lavatory paper, something else I remember from childhood. It saves money and you can collect them free as people throw them out. One of their big treats is a stew they make when they have a little bit of spare cash. They get vegetables, a bit of meat, and make up a huge pot of broth which lasts them for days. We did those. I looked forward to them hugely as you’d eat well for a good two or three days and the whole house would be filled with the rich smell.

The point here isn’t merely to describe what it’s like to be poor (more precisely what it’s like to be what was once called the undeserving poor, and is now called different things though the concept remains very much with us). The point is looking straight at what is and writing it down.

Bukowski’s gaze isn’t objective. No gaze can be. It is though honest and it’s as much so when examining Bukowski himself (Chinaski I should say, but the line is a thin one) as it is when it looks at anything else.

This doesn’t have the raw power of Post Office. It doesn’t have quite that intensity and insanity. If you were to read one before the other it should be Post Office. That said if Post Office had never been written this would still have got Bukowski recognised. It’s good. As I said of Post Office, it’s true.

On a final note, among the many things I read as a teenager were the Beats. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and of course Burroughs. Bukowski didn’t regard himself as a beat writer and I wouldn’t argue that he was wrong in his self-assessment. There are clear links though. A continuation of a conversation perhaps.

There’s a sense in modern mythology in which guys like Bukowski are heroes. He refused to compromise, on paper anyway (I have no idea if he did in life, though my impression is not a huge amount). His novels are highly autobiographical and the contempt Chinaski shows for his jobs and bosses is born of that refusal to settle for what he’s supposed to do and think. In the end Bukowski became an author, poet, screenwriter. That gives his life a narrative. It’s that which makes him seem heroic.

The truth is though that there are many, many Bukowskis. Many Chinaskis. Many people of both genders who go through life not compromising and accepting poverty and failure as the price of that. The difference is Bukowksi had talent, and of course a degree of luck. Chinaski is partly him, but he’s also all the Bukowskis who didn’t make it but who lived the same life anyway.

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Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

Most authors don’t write about what it’s like to have a job, possibly because all too many of them haven’t really had much by way of jobs. They’ll write about what it’s like to be a struggling author, there’s an ocean of novels covering that territory, but there’s not much about life as most people actually live it.

Well, that’s a hideous exaggeration of course, there’s the marvellous Something Happened by Joseph Heller; there’s What was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn; Microserfs by Douglas Coupland; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe; arguably one could even say much of Revolutionary Road. Still, it’s not territory most authors are that comfortable in.

Charles Bukowski’s an exception. His (apparently largely autobiographical) 1971 debut novel Post Office has a lot to say about work, about the sheer grind of clocking in, day in and day out. It’s the story of his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, and his twelve or so years working at the US post office, first as a substitute mail carrier (mailman in other words) and later as a sorting clerk. It includes absurd bureaucracy, idiot rules, petty and malevolent supervisors, banal inhumanity. It’s very well written, often extremely funny, and desperately sad.

Chinaski is drunk and a womaniser, he plays the horses (generally winning, for a while he makes a living at it), he cheats on his live in girlfriend (whom he refers to as his “shackjob”, because he shacks up with her) casually and without thought. He’s a man who on being presented for the first time with his new born baby assesses the nurse’s figure. He’s lazy, has an attitude problem and hates all his jobs, he keeps up with them just because the women he’s with expect him to make an honest living (rather than one at the tracks) and because he can’t generally be bothered to quit and do something else.

Bukowski clearly understands Chinaski’s world, given he lived it I guess he should. He’s tremendous at bringing to life the stupidity and sometimes downright insanity of the public, with their dogs and demands and random aggression. I’ve worked retail, as a student, and I still remember people asking me as I worked the pick’n’mix if they could both pick and mix, I remember the guy who held up two bottles of water, one in each hand, and asked me which one was colder. People individually in my experience are ok, the public though are insane. Bukowski knows this:

The voices of the people were the same, no matter where you carried the mail you heard the same things over and over again.
“You’re late, aren’t you?”
“Where’s the regular carrier?”
“Hello, Uncle Sam!”
“Mailman! Mailman! This doesn’t go here!”
The streets were full of insane and dull people. Most of them lived in nice houses and didn’t seem to work, and you wondered how they did it. There was one guy who wouldn’t let you put the mail in his box. He’d stand in the driveway and watch you coming for 2 or 3 blocks and he’d stand there and hold his hand out.

For the record, Catherine O’Flynn captures the experience of working in retail better than anyone else I’ve read, Chinaski of course is a public servant, if anything that’s even worse. It comes with additional feelings of entitlement on the part of the public.

Chinaski works for sadistic supervisors who take pleasure in making his life miserable, assigning him impossible routes in brutal conditions and denying him work when he answers back. Employees are expected to look up to old timers whose lives have plainly been ruined by the job, men of stunted horizons whose every interest and spark of life has been crushed under years of repetition. When these figures break, as they do, they are discarded like old machine parts, and never spoken of again.

As the novel continues, Chinaski moves from woman to woman, sometimes hitting it lucky, sometimes not so much. He leaves his job as a mail carrier, but later returns to the post office, now as a sorter. It’s an indoor job, better money but lacking the challenge of making difficult routes on time in bad weather. That said, it is secure:

After swearing us in, the guy told us:
“All right now, you’ve got a good job. Keep your nose clean and you’ve got security the rest of your life.”
Security? You could get security in jail. 3 squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No licence plate fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. Comradeship with those with similar interests. Church. Round-eye. Free burial.

Security here is the trap. The post office offers a good job, good conditions, decent pay, it’s hard to get fired (Chinaski routinely turns up drunk and takes time off without permission). There’s constant chivvying, tasks to be performed in times calculated by external consultants who’ve never done the job, penalties for going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water outside your allotted ten minute break, requirements as to how you sit on your stool while you sort, but if you can put up with all that you could spend decades with the post office. Those who do put on weight, sag and spread, but they’re secure. To Chinaski, it’s a form of death, a way of losing your own life.

Bukowski doesn’t just write about work, Chinaski is popular with women, despite being described by more than one character as looking like a wino. He’s obviously got some charisma, some charm, and although he generally treats women like convenient objects there’s a level at which he remains aware of their essential humanity. At times, there’s even a tenderness:

The blankets had fallen off and I stared down at her white back, the shoulder blades sticking out as if they wanted to grow into wings, poke through that skin. Little blades. She was helpless.

Chinaski just doesn’t connect that humanity, that vulnerability, with any implication that maybe he shouldn’t sleep with the next woman who’s available as soon as his current one is off to work.

Post Office is full of damaged people. Workmates who shout and boast of sexual conquests they’ve clearly never had. People who break down, crying in the locker room as they become too old to still sort post as fast as management requires. Chinaski’s world is a brutal one, supervisors care only about delivery targets, institutions are faceless and indifferent to those they employ, people are messy and drunk and needy but their society requires them to be none of those things. Chinaski inhabits the world of those who slip through the cracks, the people who stop coping, who maybe could never cope, the people who get old and never made enough to create a cushion that could make that bearable:

She got a job as a waitress, then lost that when they tore down the cafe to erect an office building. Now she lived in a small room in a loser’s hotel. She changed the sheets there and cleaned the bathrooms. She was on wine.

She went back to her room and put on her best dress, high heels, tried to fix up. But there was a terrible sadness about her.

This is a plotless novel. Stuff happens, but there isn’t really a story arc. Chinaski gets a job with the post office, leaves it and does some other stuff for a while, then returns to the post office. He has relationships, few friendships, he spends a lot of time drunk. That’s about it. What it is though is a portrait of what it’s like to be part of the itinerant underclass, the people in lousy jobs on poor wages, seen as unreliable by bosses who neither understand nor care about the chaos of their lives. These people start out with dreams, ambitions, desires like all of us. But along the way they get crushed, and Post Office in part shows us how:

I don’t know how it happens to people. I had child support, need for something to drink, rent, shoes, shirts, socks, all that stuff. LIke everyone else I needed an old car, something to eat, all the little intangibles.

It’s no surprise to me that Post Office had the impact it did. This is a great novel. It’s ugly, vulgar and crass. It contains a lot of block capitalised shouting. It’s characters are unpleasant, mad, pathetic, often cruel, sometimes downright repugnant (including Chinaski). But it’s true, and for me truth is the essence of good art. This is good art.

Post Office

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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