I have long been haunted by the story of Sam Selvon. A London writer of Indo-Trinidadian background, he wrote a series of exhilarating, ground-breaking novels in the 1950s and 1960s charting the travails of the first generation of post-war Caribbean immigrants in the capital of “the mother country”. Feeling he’d failed to get his proper due on the London literary scene, he emigrated to Canada, from where he’d occasionally return to make splenetic, sometimes drunken outbursts at literary gatherings. I pictured him, living his last days far away, my embodiment of the underappreciated artist. This image of him may not be accurate, but it speaks to a wider truth; that writers, especially “minority” writers, cannot do it alone. They need wise critics too.
Step forward Sukhdev Sandhu, a young critic and the Daily Telegraph’s film reviewer, who doesn’t want for ambition. Because so many writers from Britain’s former colonies have featured London in their work, he sees his book as a history of black British literature; indeed,”a history of black and Asian London itself”. He doesn’t quite achieve these goals, partly because he has the partial vision afforded by love. A West Country boy who lives in Whitechapel, he is in love with London and has “a soft spot for rhapsodical writers, those who are not embarrassed to talk about having fun in the city”.
His bias is a welcome corrective to those many black and white worthies who have diminished the audience for black creative writing by treating it as if it were anthropology; only to be prized for its social grit, its capacity to “bring the news” from the frontlines. For Sandhu, though, “the primary struggles of most black and Asian Londoners have been domestic, not political. They wanted to have a bed to sleep in… friends with whom to banter, someone to cuddle up to at night.” And so we have, from the 18th century, the former slave turned grocer and man of culture Ignatius Sancho, dispatching letters in a style every bit as experimental and nuanced as that of his good friend the novelist Laurence Sterne; we have Hanif Kureishi and his world of “flexi-sexual metro bohemians”; and Selvon, gloriously rehabilitated as a truly great modernist writer, who invented a composite form of dialect to do poetic justice to both the backgrounds and the daily lives of his new Londoners.
Sandhu performs his most signal service in his discussions of Selvon; of JJ Thomas, whose 1889 Froudacity counterblasted the Victorian historian Froude’s ignorant history of the West Indies; of the Georgian anti-establishment conspirator and master of invective Robert Wedderburn; and of Steve Martin, whose 1996 novel Incomparable World was a wonderful portrayal of black Georgian Covent Garden life.
Sandhu is something of a revisionist. He dents the reputations of VS Naipaul and Caryl Phillips by showing how, in their London-based writings, they are insensitive to many of the joys and lightnesses London has to offer. In his discussion of posh Indian writers who wrote Victorian travelogues on the city, he shows how they were just as guilty of objectifying their subjects as their European counterparts.
It may be that it is Sandhu’s predilection for impious, naughty writers that blinds him to any thorough overview of modern black writing. Phillips apart, the only contemporary black novelist he discusses at any length is Victor Headley, who wrote the ghetto-fabulous Yardie trilogy for the black imprint X-Press. Sandhu’s thesis is that since Asians have tended to live in the suburbs, they have had a different relationship with the capital than the black denizens of the rough, tough inner city. But comparing the literary writers Rushdie and Kureishi with Headley, whose main market is a “home” working-class one, is something of a false comparison. There are no Africans here, and no real sense of how an African sensibility – non-Western and often well-educated, like most of his Asian writers – might be different from the ones he discusses. The book also has nothing to say about the new generation of black writers born and bred in the capital.
There are other curious absences. The white Jean Rhys is here, but there is only the briefest mention of Colin McInnes. He would have helped Sandhu in teasing out distinctions between African and Caribbean points-of-view. Still, this is a fine, usually insightful and stylishly written piece of work, a valuable, zesty contribution to the growing body of literature on black writers by black writers.
Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd