|Paul D. Miller – aka DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid – is an underground treasure. An African-American cultural theorist-cum-musician, his Rhythm Science (Mediaworks) is a sharp, sweetly designed little number, a manifesto for his way of looking at the world. Tracing connections between Duchamp, Debussy, the Wu Tang Clan and the everyday creativity he saw growing up in Washington DC, he shows how art and idealism can activate each other in this era of sampling and ‘multiplex consciousness’. In its range of reference and its fruitful speculations, it reminds me of our own Kodwo Eshun’s groundbreaking More Brilliant Than the Sun (Quartet) of a few years back.”|
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
|What makes you fall in love with someone? It might be the way that he or she smiles, or speaks, or walks, or eats, or holds a glass, or sees the world. Whatever it is, we’ll find it hard to put into words. And it won’t be something we go looking for, but something that catches us by surprise – unexpected, inimitable, unique.
As with love, so with literature. When we began to edit this year’s New Writing anthology, we didn’t know what it was we were after. But as we discovered it – as each of us came across pieces which made us say YES! – so an understanding of what we all liked became possible. In particular, we found ourselves responding to voices: imagined voices, authentic (seemingly tape-recorded) voices, voices which come at us from unfamiliar places, voices which shock and move. If there is any common thread to this volume, it is to do with the skilful use and exploration of voice: voices with a heartbeat and a personality. From the interior monologue musings in Nick Barlay’s virtuoso modern love triptych, to the crazed milk-obsessed world of Gerard Woodward’s narrator, to the brittle and frighteningly empty voices of Sophie Woolley’s Slinky? and to Binyavanga Wainaina’s glorious spoof on authentic voices in Kenyan litterachuwa, here are tales that are’t just told, but are told in a powerfully original way…
|One of the more striking aspects of post-second World War British history has been the development, in this once proud emperor, of a full-on cultural cringe to the United States. Labour Prime Minister Blair?s continuing close support for his Republican counterpart Bush in this Iraq war has been but the latest political manifestation of a genuflection that has been going on a while in various spheres, from corporate culture to the arts. Management mores are one thing, but culture – wasn?t that what Britain, Old Europe, was supposed to be good, to be better, at? Something more than the US?s ubiquitous economic strength, I think, is needed to explain the fact – to take one example – that in the immediate post-war years a third of the fiction (and films) being produced by Britain?s closest neighbour, France, was translated or distributed in this country. Now, those figures have shrunk to 2%, whilst the American presence on the books pages of our newspapers has mushroomed.
Probably the dominant theme in the ongoing British praisesong of American literature has been a reverence for the scale of it: the epic road novels of a Kerouac, the panoramic, State-of-The-Nation efforts of a Wolfe or a Roth or a De Lillo or, in more recent times, a Frantzen. These are participants in a great tradition, say the critics, that has had few British takers since Dickens and Eliot.
Well, maybe. It always struck me that a true State-of-The-Nation novel, in a nation as diverse and stratified as the US, must surely be a doomed venture. What magician could juggle so many different perspectives, plot a curve through all those points?
And anyway, I was rarely a fan of those big-bottomed, births, marriages and deaths – style novels. I had fallen, instead, aged thirteen, for another, a book that seemed to sneer at such styles, a book which began, If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you?ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don?t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth…
That novel, JD Salinger?s The Catcher in the Rye? (American again, as it happens), which followed a week in the life of a troubled middle-class teenager on the brink of breakdown, was the first OEadult? piece of fiction that I fell madly, deeply in love with; the first novel I had read that I totally wanted to write.
Flicking though it now, I?m pleased to see that I?ve stayed true to my first love: many of its qualities the particularity and immediacy of its voice, its deceptive casualness, that sense of a character?s thoughts being caught on the hop, as it were, in all one?s individual patterns and rhythms, remain, for me, amongst fiction?s greatest pleasures.
I like small. I like local, specificity, microcosm; secrets, vernacular, point-of-view, all the things that make you you; believing, with English poet WH Auden, that God is in the detail?, that truth – now more than ever, in a country, and a continent, that is increasingly multicultural – is best served that way…..
|I do not claim for the following the rigour and full measure of the academic paper. This is more in the way of some remarks, really, about the types of black-British literature that are out or have been out there, from a current, someway ideological, practitioner. I guess it’s something of a plea for a change in emphasis, a reorientation of energies, in what we “black-British” writers produce. A plea for more lightness really, more styles and more style. More, you could say, prettiness.
Before I continue, I should declare my interest. I think you can divide the literary world, very broadly, between story- or narrative-centred work, such as you find most obviously in commercial fiction, and voice-driven work, and I’m definitely one of and for the latter. I grew up on narrative-driven work—the Sherlock Holmes stories, Greek myths, the births, marriages and deaths novels of classic European literature; but the first thing I read that I really wanted to write, the first book I fell in love with, was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—just for the voice of its teenage hero, Holden Caulfield: conversational, particular, unimpressed by authority, societal or literary. Its opening, you remember, explicitly rejects the births, marriages, and deaths—what you might call the Dickens approach: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to hear is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap….”
At the time I was also feeling P.G. Wodehouse, and here, too, you had the sense that his rather identikit plots weren’t the main point of the books; rather, they were the necessary vehicle for his local, verbal pleasurings, his ludic love: “I could see that, if not exactly disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled….” Later, Samuel Beckett, Hunter S. Thompson, Donald Barthelme, the essays of James Baldwin, and then, still later—as I ventured beyond the black familiar—Greg Tate’s early 1990s’ Village Voice columns.
All of these writers were doing things with words and cadence. They were all stylists, and style is what I think makes you fall in love.
It’s the same, often, in real world love. We meet quite a few people with relatively similarly content, but we tend to fall for few. It’ll be something about the way they hold their head when they smile, or their particular way of apprehending the world; the things that make you you.
Rhythm, vibe, is what seduces: the patterning, attitude towards words; these are what charges a character, a universe. I think the great worldwide impact of reggae in the 1970s wasn’t primarily about the lyrics of Bob Marley et al., but that lulling Nyabinghi bass-drum sound, rumoured to echo the human heartbeat.
The sadness for a lot of black literature, though, is that we have mainly been remarked upon and desired for our content. Ever since the eighteenth-century days of Olaudah Equiano, whose depictions of the slave experience helped fuel the abolitionist movement in Britain, or the nineteenth-century days of Frederick Douglass in America, you could argue that black writing has been prized chiefly for its ability to bring information about lives beyond the experience of your average book buyer.
You could place the novels of Richard Wright, the gritty social realism of early hip-hop—Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, etc., inside this camp. As Granta magazine said, tellingly, in its introduction to its pick of Young British Novelists 2003, about a friend of mine, Monica Ali, and her first novel, the London-Bangladeshi-set Brick Lane: we so liked this (I paraphrase) because it brought us “news.” This does beg the question, “News to whom?” I don’t think they meant news to Bengalis.
This “news to others”—information for those who don’t know—has had a distorting effect, I believe, on black work down the years, from the Harlem Renaissance onwards, and is one aspect of this possibly un-winnable, multi-focal game that minority writers often find themselves ensnared in, that I call the “Black Catch 22.”
It has also contributed to a certain heaviness in the black novel—or, at least, to most of the black novels that are held up as being “important.” One thinks of the frequency of the “slave” or the “racism” narratives, or of the fact that Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright seem more prized than the lady who, for me, wrote the most exquisite novel of that whole period, Zora Neale Hurston, and her non-slave, non-racial Their Eyes Were Watching God; or that the headline-friendly black vs. white dramas of Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever) attracted so much more attention than the wonderfully subtle studies of modern African-American interiority made by that master Charles Burnett.
Onyekachi Wambu picks up on this legacy of heaviness in his introduction to his black-British anthology Empire Windrush when he quotes two American critics writing in the 1960s. David Littlejohn had become discouraged wading through the African-American catalogue for his study, Black and White: “A white reader is saddened, then burdened, then numbed by the deadly sameness, the bleak wooden round of ugly emotions and ugly situations: the same, small, frustrated dreams, the same issues and charges and formulas and events repeated over and over, in book after book…one is finally bored by the iteration of hopelessness….” And African-American Blyden Jackson can only concur: “It seems to me that few, if any, literary universes are as impoverished as the universe of black fiction. [Of greatest interest] are the things that cannot be found there.”
Writing in the late 1990s, Wambu did not find the black-British universe quite as bleak as that, and this was before the often comic voice, for example, of Zadie Smith emerged. Nevertheless, looking more widely at the British cultural scene—to judge, say, from a bunch of mainstream black feature and documentary films that have recently aired in the U.K., including Bullet Boy, Shoot the Messenger, The Trouble with Black Men—we remain in a heavy place, where black life is seen as problematic, or pathological. Simultaneously (and somewhat-related), within the literary world I detect an ongoing desire in certain quarters to revivify the big, psychological, realistic, nineteenth-century European novel tradition in post-colonial hands: the seemingly safe hands of a V.S. Naipaul or a Monica Ali.
I’m not saying this heaviness comes just from the tastes of white critics or commissioners; we have our own agents of gravity. Many of us, in the West, in Africa, do lead heavy lives and writers, unsurprisingly, wish to bear witness to them. Moreover, the drive to “represent” is particularly strong in minority cultures. Most of the black Western public, in truth, aren’t about, aren’t really concerned with, the art in their art; they’re more about being “represented.” And the pressure to “represent” tends to be a conservative-leaning force, both politically and stylistically.
One could, of course, say much more in this connection, I think, about African artworks in the British Museum and about how, in ancient African societies, the artist was often the figure that gave voice to the community on its big days—for its religious ceremonies, and so forth. (Many of us do indeed collect artefacts for their “representational aspects,” there is no doubt.)
It’s funny because, even if what helped to draw me into black writing was some of its obvious relevance and “representational” power—Langston Hughes’s short story collection The Ways of White Folk produced my first adult tears as a reader—what made me stay was language.
Hughes’s jazz-inflected poetry, Greg Tate, music, black-British slang—all greatly increased the registers of English I had at my command, the same impulse that took me to Wodehouse. I liked how they inverted standard phrases. Not “We haven’t met in ages,” but its patois equivalent: “Is how long an’ we don’t catch up?”—or Roberta Flack’s “The first time ever I saw your face….”
There was linguistic experimentation even at the beginning of black-British literature. Ignatius Sancho was an ally, both on the page and off it, of Lawrence Sterne, and more recently, in the diaspora, Sam Selvon, Amos Tutuola, Ayi Kwei Armah, Dambudzo Marechera, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Nate McKee, and so on. Beyond them, in other fields, cinematographer Arthur Jafa, or the formally exciting British work of Sankofa and the Black Audio Film Collective in the 1980s. We can root “black” in other, non-race centred things: black as improvisation, as we found in jazz; black as rhythm, as we find in much music; black as vexing the Queen’s English. Black, too, as the quintessential post-modern position—double consciousnesses, less or multiply-rooted identities, that should give rise naturally to daring, “post-modern” work: genre-riffs or New World “takes” on old-country notions, more playful, speculative fiction, perhaps, or musical, rhythmic, pretty work.
I think of (another) aspect of the pieces in the British Museum’s African collections. The sculptures there are not properly figurative, but symmetrical, geometric—the external quality pinpointed by the European Cubists who bit off them. But their carvers were attempting to give outward expression to a feeling or aspiration: the divine potential in human beings. The idea is that, once one has attained a certain level of overstanding, there will be an inner calm, a composure that they sought to express through these graceful shapes. It harks back to notions of cool—Itutu—in old Yoruba societies. Writers have that same feeling when they’ve nailed a passage, an insight. It manifests itself in a certain fluency, an ease on the page. Everything just so, in its place. As Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
As black artists, we have the reputation of innovators in other fields. If we can bring that to the page, bring more of the attitudes and energies we find elsewhere, we can alter, not just revivify, the vibe of the British poem, the British novel. And then there’ll be no end to our audience, black and other.
There were plenty of black faces on canvas in the 19th century – but few behind the easel. Diran Adebayo on how racial prejudices were expressed in art
Dante Gabriel Rossettii’s The Beloved (The Bride)
Photograph: John Webb. © Tate Gallery.
There’s a piece of advice I give budding black British writers who want to write a successful “black” novel. “The best thing,” I say, “is to hang out with as many white folk as you can. Find out what’s on their minds about black people.” I do not mean this cynically – OK, a little bit – but more as a reflection of the fact that in the literary world, most people (the editor, the PR person, the critics and most of the book-buying public) are white. Black novelists thus find themselves in the peculiar position of creating a work of fiction in the knowledge that those who are most likely to appreciate how well it has been done are the ones who don’t matter. This doesn’t only affect black writers and artists – a white working-class novelist might say the same – but it has affected us greatly down the years, and tends to increase the more rarefied the artistic air you breathe. With pop music, it’s possible to make a record cheaply and then generate a black street buzz around your product, but in the worlds of film and visual arts, less so.
Manchester’s exhibition Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 is a case in point. Of all the paintings, photos and sculptures presented here by curator Jan Marsh, none are by black Britons; these images are, more than usual, a record of the white gaze. And there are some celebrated white gazers among them: the sculptor Pietro Calvi, the painters Gabriel Rossetti, James Whistler and John Lewis, whom Ruskin ranked second only to Turner among British artists of that period.
The fact that no traces remain of any active black British artist in the 19th century is surprising, given that there were more black people here than is commonly thought. We don’t know how many exactly, because ethnic origin was not recorded in the first in-depth national census of 1841, but it’s clear that our visibility exceeded our numbers (not least because artists welcomed the opportunity black figures provided for contrast, and to use neglected parts of the palette). Black people were already in England in sufficient numbers during the 16th century for Elizabeth I to issue her “Blackamoor” proclamation of 1601, ordering their expulsion. Then, black people were often servants, court and fairground entertainers, and seafarers. Novels such as Steve Martin’s Incomparable World have alerted us to the presence of a black community around London’s Covent Garden in the late 18th century, when a motley crew was augmented by runaway slaves from the Americas, but black people were more typically to be found in the poorest parts of big cities, such as London’s East End. They crop up regularly, in early stabs at depicting cultural diversity, to add to the low-life flavour in the boisterous tavern and crowd scenes of caricaturists such as Cruickshank. As Britain’s imperial sway grew in Victoria’s reign, so did the range of black folk to be found here. You could see black students strolling arm in arm with white people down the Strand, and messenger boys, sports- and tradespeople, too, some earning extra pennies moonlighting as artists’ models.
So, what did white hands make of this other? There are stereotypes aplenty – dusky female attendants in harem scenes; the poor; future composer Coleridge-Taylor posing as an African draped in a leopardskin (the leopardskin was a popular studio prop) – but there are few grotesques. Most subjects are given fair, unexaggerated likenesses and the positions they occupy in these scenes, though often sentimentalised, are not ridiculed.
As Marsh notes in the catalogue, Victorian racial attitudes were both simple and messy. Certainly, many black British residents encountered prejudice. This was underpinned by a hierarchical understanding of race that, since the Enlightenment days of Hume and Kant, placed “unlettered” blacks on the bottom rung (hence black servants’ proximity to household pets in Georgian sketches); it was bolstered in the 19th century by the emergence of anthropology and ethnography, which reached the British public through the era’s big exhibitions and spectacles, stacked with the spoils of empire.
Beyond this, though, were the great tugs of the abolitionist and missionary movements, both of which emphasised the commonality of all men and the duty incumbent upon Christians to convert the heathens. Queen Victoria, who wept, like many of her subjects, on reading about the horrors of slavery described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was an abolitionist, and anti-slavery had become an emblem of national virtue by the middle of the century. Thomas Barker’s picture The Secret of England’s Greatness, in which the Queen hands a Bible to an African prince, perhaps shows the limits of her compassion. She is standing, he gratefully kneeling, and their hands do not quite touch.
British artists were also beginning to travel, and their contact with people in Africa and the Caribbean contradicted the homogeneous, undifferentiated vision of the negro held by many back home. Lewis went to live in Egypt for a decade, and his immersion pays dividends in the range of expressions and skin tone in the African figures that populate his “orientalist” studies.
After Abolition there was a decline in the amount of black material coming out of the galleries or the printing-presses, which became more marked as events abroad hardened attitudes at home. There were insurrections in Jamaica and India, British deaths at Khartoum and in the Zulu wars in the 1880s, and savage, punitive raids mounted on the west African kingdoms of Asante and Benin a decade later, preceding full takeovers. The market demanded more generic, anodyne images of Africans and, as the century ended, English buyers lost their appetite for paintings of black people.
Britishness was now being enforced abroad, and at home – where racial jibes were on the rise and those seeking education or asylum were judged on the speed of their adoption of English clothes and customs – it had become an ever more significant factor in how black residents were viewed and treated. You get an inkling of this in Camille Silvy’s 1862 portrait of a black couple. They stand with due dignity, the husband’s hand tucked into his suit pocket, the respectable Victorian gentleman. There is no sense of them being mocked for their “impudence”, the way there is in many American prints of the same period. Here, the point seems to be: they are British now; they have done as well as they could.
The current national, or at least media, obsession with the threat to our national identity is nothing new, and it raises the question of just how much more progressive and enlightened we are than our Victorian forebears. What would a time-traveller think if he had touched down in the late Victorian era and then returned, a century or so later, to our shores, with the visual arts as his main guide? Well, he’d see that now there was at least a black British artistic faction. But he would still see little genuine black control over visual representation. There is a great appetite for showing the problems that some of the black community face (gun crime in the play Elmina’s Kitchen, or the film Bullet Boy). And where black appears unproblematically in the mainstream (in, say, reality TV, or an average white-and-black buddy movie), it is there often as a pointer to white inclusiveness and modernity. The story remains much as it would have been a century ago. Most arrivals would have wanted to be “British”, if that concept could be widened to accommodate them.
Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 is at Manchester Art Gallery (0161-235 8888) until January 8. Diran Adebayo is writer-in-residence at the British Museum.
Copyright: Guardian Newspapers Ltd.
Question: you walk into a bookstore, you are in the mood for some fresh new fiction. Being a creature of your time, you are quite-cool orientated. You are British, perhaps a touch reserved. You flip inside a novel – looks alright, you are, perhaops, reaching for your wallet, when you hit the Dedication page, which reads ‘’For X, seeing as you asked me to tell you a story,’ X being a female name. Do you a) smile approvingly at this example of new, touchy-feely Britain or b) grimace, reach for your sick bag istead, thinking ‘time for a sharp exit?
I suspect that most people will lean towards option b). I hope not, for the dedication is my own. And I would ask you to be gentle with it, dear browser, for it took much bother to get me there.
Dediactions, dedications! The Dedication/ Acknowledgements business is like a little concentrate of the novelistic process itself, with its indecisions and endless revisions. You spend many a moment over the long months tinkering with these introductory pages, time better spent keeping your appointments with the text. And, just like the body of the book, though sometimes you pretend it isn’t personal, it always is. These pages mirror the state of your relationships in a form of quiet revenge Your agent calls you flush with a foreign rights package – straight to top billing on the acknowledgements! Your editor wants to get rid of your first three chapters, sack her from the same… You have a little bust-up with your lady and ‘For X, seeing as you asked me to tell you a story,’ becomes, simply, ‘For X’. You come home to find your bags at the door and you’re thinking, “Hmm. Maybe this book doesn’t need a dedication page at all…”
And beyond these are other considerations. Do you stay ‘in character’ as an author, an artist, by proffering an appetiser of your creative powers, or opt for honesty – the real you? Write something sweet deflated by humour, perhaps, a la PG Wodehouse’s ‘Heart of a Goof’ – ‘For X, without whose frequent presence this book would have been finished in half the time’ I thought of, or go sombrely political (“This book is dedicated to the memory and family of Stephen Lawrence’ – Courttia Newland, ‘Society Within’)?
I looked to other writers on my shelf, seeking safety in numbers, but here was a funny thing. For though I found the odd author keen to remain in character – the typically lyrical Toni Morrison, for instance – “to the two who gave me life, and the one who made me free’ – the pre-dominant mode these days, at least in western literature, is one of most unwriterly restraint. Scribblers so keen to play for high verbal stakes elsewhere go all coy on you at the front. Your Amises, your Rushdies, take your pick – a swift, discreet nod to nearest and dearest, and out. I must confess to feeling increasingly short-changed as I waded.. Sincere restraint has its place but it is a dull one, after a while. Is it not time we asked our scribblers to flex a bit more muscle in this matter?….
|First loves, first sights, are famously hard to beat. ‘Til now, my favourite sportsman is the early 20th century Australian batsman Victor Trumper, not least because his was the first sports biography I ever read. The bands I began listening to when I first got beyond ‘pop’ music, The Velvet Underground and others, remain very dear. And, as with cricket and music, so with the other matter that has dominated my headspace – literature.
I first came across The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13. One of my older brothers was studying the book for his English ‘O’ Level and a copy of it was lying about the house. At the time I was under a gruelling regime, courtesy of my father, that had me reading a different Dickens novel every fortnight and then giving him an oral report on it whilst he ate his Sunday lunch. I wasn’t the biggest fan of those nineteenth century tomes, with their too-linear births-marriage-deaths progressions, so you can imagine the joy I felt when I picked up this book one day and read those opening lines: ‘ ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap…’
Ah, how to start about this wonder? I had read quite a few good books even then, but this was the first ‘adult’ book I’d read that I desperately wished I’d written. It has, in spades, the three things I cherish most as a reader and aspire to most often, technically, as a writer: (strong) voice, particularity, and a nice, easy, natural-feeling flow. And there was also what might be the narcissistic necessity: I don’t believe I’ve ever read, before or since, a character for whom I felt such affinity.
Its story is swiftly told. Protagonist Holden Caulfield is a sensitive, scornful, self-destructive, off-centre, caring, sweet soul, on the cusp of adulthood, falling in a world thick with someway irritating, or downright ‘phony’ straights – types better equipped to successfully negotiate these societies of ours. After being thrown out of his prep (read: public) school he stumbles around in his home city of New York for a couple of days before ending up in some kind of mental hospital. Yes, your now-common teenage angst, to some degree, but no-one has nailed it like this.
It is so sharply observed and, best of all, hilarious. Just flicking through the book now, I am chuckling, really chuckling, over and over again. It is also, in a low key kind of way, wise. In one of the book’s key scenes, his former, favourite teacher, Mr Antolini, probably the only one who could ‘save’ him, warns Holden that he is heading, now or later, for a fall and quotes the psychoalnalyst Wilhelm Stekel: ‘The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.’
Shrink or no shrink, we all become more familiar with our patterns as we get older. I’ve grown to notice that my preferred story pattern – most movingly executed, as it happens, in another of my top ten novels – Joseph Conrad’s‘Victory’ – is one we’d now call noir: a world weary, semi-detached hero, bright and disappointed enough to know better, gets sucked into the thick of things once more, usually on behalf or because of a woman, only to meet his doom. Salinger’s ‘Catcher’ is not noir, but Holden is as world weary as they come, yearning for something good and true to live by; there’s a certain noiry sentimentalising, even fetishising, going on in his attitudes to women and innocents and, percolating though all, the sweet smell of doom.
|10:33pm 14/ 07/ 84
On train – Birmingham (ethnic place); wondered idly whether some racist maniac would get on train and kill any ‘blacks’ he saw.. Where would they send my luggage,with my journals?’
That diary entry, written when I was 15, is a significant one for me. It’s the only mention during my schooldays, my public schooldays, of racial ’fear’. And i wasn’t even at school at the time; I was in transit, returning from my boarding establishment deep in the country, one Malvern College, to my home in inner city London, for the summer holidays. There are amused asides in that diary,that i kept from my second year there, on walking into local cafes with white schoolmates and seeing the interested reactions on locals’ faces, and comments on racism in Conrad’s novels, but nothing about racial grief in the corridors or playgrounds. Looking at it now, with with a more jaundiced adult perspective, particularly in a week when Eton’s headmaster has seen fit to write to his pupils’ parents about bullying, racism and homophobia in the school, the solitariness of that entry feels curiouser and curiouser. But it’s a true reflection. To amend the cliche, I’d have to say that those school years, Race in Britain-wise, were probably the happiest years of my life.
Malvern, like our football rivals Eton, was in the classic public school mould: all boys – 600, of which 6orseven wereblack and ten or so were Asian during my time there – spacious grounds, high fees, house rather than school-centric. I arrived there courtesy of a scholarship. My family didn’t have money but we weren’t ‘deprived.’ My folks ran an education-centred household and, we,my three state-school attending brothers and I, all spoke relatively ‘well, not too London. I think that all helped – being a scholar proved that I was good at something ,and a neutral voice meant there was one less thing for these posher kids to pick on you for.
As any boarding-school veteran will tell you, these places can resemble one of the tougher prisons you hear about. After – sometimes even before the housemaster goes to bed, it turns pure‘Lord of The Flies’ in there, with the bigger inmates taking over the escape-proof asylum. Your first year is largely concerned with survival strategies which chiefly involved securing the patronage of older more powerful, popular boys. And, to win them over, you needed to be good at something.To be good at sports was the best – a clear house asset, but you could be funny or clever, so long as you weren’t too swotty; you could be pretty (homophobia was loudly proclaimed but homo-eroticism was everywehere), or take up smoking to ease yourself into the bad boys’ crew, or simply be good at being a’man’, which meant being robust and game for an escapade and, crucially, physically mature…..
|There were many stories, many versions of what had happened to Sam: Sam, the local black guy, or ‘the coloured lad’ as he is more frequently known in these parts. Most everybody I spoke to in Penrith, historic capital of Cumbria and hub of the beautiful Eden Valley, knew something about the incident. But some thought it had taken place outside a pub, others after a football match; some thought that it had occurred fairly recently, others some years back; some said that he had been set upon by two men, others that it was more of a give-and-take altercation. All were agreed, though, that there had been nothing specifically racial about the incident, so much so that I found myself, by my fifth time of asking, preempting the response. “You know that Sam business, “ I said to a cab-driver, “it probably wasn’t racial, was it?”. My cabbie, keen to shed the best light on his community, shook his head vigorously.
It wasn’t until two days later that I heard the truth of the matter, from one Roger Brennan, a curly-haired softly spoken local I met in a town centre pub. For sure it was racial, Roger, a fitter at the Sellafield nuclear plant 50 miles away, insisted. He’d actually witnessed the trouble, had been standing on the touchline at a small six a side football tournament organised by members of the Carlisle United Suporters Club – Carlisle is Eden’s nearest league team – when two other spectators began abusing Sam as he was playing. Then one of them had suddenly run onto the pitch and “glassed” Sam with a bottle. Roger didn’t know the extent of Sam’s upset but he knew that Sam had pressed charges and his assailant convicted and sent down.
The local newpaper later confirmed the story but it was difficult to get the date and other details from the ‘paper or the police. No-one, you see, seems to know Sam’s last name.
Sam, the elusive Sam. For a community whose villagers and town dwellers really do know each other, where, as I’m frequently told, you can’t step out of your front door without bumping into twenty people you know, hard information on Sam is strangely hard to find: where he lives, what he does, his relationships, his social haunts. I kicked myself then, listening to Roger, for my earlier complacency; for my readiness to believe that Sam was alright, to accept the infamous Sam incident as being the result of some unremarkable encounter. I wondered why that had been and could only put it down to my sheer relief that, after a dispiriting initial period, I’d spent a relatively pleasant, hassle-free time in this oh so English ‘paradise’…