Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation

Summer is Hearts

The Lonely LondonersThe Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aahhh what a sweet read this is. It brings back to you the joy of having ends meet, stress off, self respect on and sun in the sky:

So, cool as a lord, the old Galahad walking out to the road, with plastic raincoat hanging on the arm, and the eyes not missing one sharp craft* that pass, bowing his head in a polite ‘Good evening’ and not giving a blast if they answer or not. This is London, this is life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world.

Is one of those summer evenings, when it look like night would never come, a magnificent evening, a powerful evening, rent finish paying, rations in the cupboard, twenty pounds in the bank, and a nice piece of skin* waiting under the big clock in Piccadilly Tube Station. The sky blue, sun shining, the girls ain’t have on no coats to hide the legs.

‘Mummy, look at that black man!’ A little child, holding on to the mother hand, look up at Sir Galahad.

‘You mustn’t say that, dear!’ The mother chide the child.

But Galahad skin like rubber at this stage, he bend down and pat the child on the cheek, and the child cower and shrink and begin to cry.

‘What a sweet child!’ Galahad say, putting on the old English accent, ‘What’s your name?’

But the child mother uneasy as they stand up there on the pavement with so many white people around: if they was alone she might have talked a little, and ask Galahad what part of the world he come from, but instead she pull the child along and she look at Galahad and give a sickly sort of smile, and the old Galahad, knowing how it is, smile back and walk on.

*sharp craft/nice piece of skin = young woman

I laughed out loud many times on the tube reading. Everything is lightly, comically rendered, even when the material is deprivation, racism, grey malaise and violence (this reminds me of the persistently comic tone framing grim events and thoughts in The Brothers Karamazov, which I’m reading now too).

The world Selvon calls up of young West Indian men in ‘50s London revolves loosely around the appropriately named Moses, gruff in manner, with not a whiff of saintliness or self-satisfaction about him, yet ever heartfully helping his fellow ‘boys’ to find housing and work in the mildly, complicatedly hostile city. Young men everywhere perhaps, have a capacity to live from week to week, ministering to their few needs, but I don’t remember another story that makes that ease of being into a prompt for self interrogation so deftly: what do I really need? What do I really want in life?

One of the things the ‘boys’ want from life is sex, and London apparently yields it up to them fairly plentifully. There are some amusing (and biting) reflections on their exotification by White women who ‘only want one thing’ and demand that they perform the white supremacist myth of black male hypersexuality, and a refreshingly respectful attitude towards sex workers (I like their word ‘sports’) but the most depressing aspect of the book is the treatment of black women.

‘a spade* wouldn’t hit a spade when it have so much other talent on parade don’t think that you wouldn’t meet real class in the park’

*spade = black person

This institutional desirability of white women, so devastating and wide-ranging in its consequences is still very much maintained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and Selvon contributes here to exposing its history. Black women as marriage partners are targets of routine domestic violence, which white women (though routinely objectified) are likely to escape. When a white woman becomes ill in his flat, Moses is petrified and seeks help instantly to get her out, in blood-chilling terror of police intervention.

Tanty, a sympathetic older black women character, offers sharp criticism of this preference for white women, as well as shelter to abused black women. She is also an agent of change in local white-owned institutions, and shows her joie de vivre when she dances with young men at a party. She is no purveyor of respectability politics, which are ridiculed gently through the character of Harris, while Bart is a vehicle for critique of shadeism.

The West Indian English Selvon shares his tale in deserves slow, savouring reading. Its bounce & sway rhythm is pleasure like dancing, and its power to frame and re-shape the living of London is strong. It invites us; it’s hospitable, easing us up to receive a dose of hard truth along with the fun. It makes me nostalgic for my own native inflection: I want to call my mum and let my consonants drop, my vowels spread and flatten northwards.

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