Calling, Sukhdev Sandhu's study examining London through
black and Asian eyes, is long overdue says Faisal Islam
HarperCollins £20, pp 389
is evolving into a different country to the rest of Britain.
Part of that is the centralisation of financial, cultural,
media and political power within the M25. Much more of it
is about migration. The Economist believes that the unfettered
flow of the world's workers to our capital is helping ease
100,000 Britons per year out as property becomes too expensive.
A Welsh nationalist politician says that English people
are moving to Wales to escape Asians.
there's plenty said about the growing presence of brown
Britain on these shores, what has brown Britain said of
its adopted homeland? Sukhdev Sandhu's 389-page trawl through
four centuries of storytelling about the capital city, through
the eyes of black and Asian writers, is a clarion call for
an over-looked literary tradition.
belated contribution focuses on the relationship between
black writers and London, the capital of Empire, and then,
as now, a magnet for the curiosities of its multiracial
subjects around the globe. A fin-de-siècle travel
ogue by Indian writer T.B. Pandian describes London as a
'Mecca for the traveller in search of truth, the Persepolis
of human grandeur in repose. To the searcher of enlightenment
it is a Buddh Gaya; a Benares for the sinner in search of
emancipation. Damp, dirty, noisy London, thou art verily
a Jerusalem for the weary soldier of faith'.
devotionals are more easily granted by those passing through
London than those who actually have to live within it. Sandhu
illuminates a century-old tradition of travel writing from
upper-caste Indians, waddling through Victorian society,
picking up most of its vices, and inspecting how its culture
was repackaged for the average Englishman at the 1886 Colonial
and Indian Exhibition.
of the remarkable aspects of these stories was the instant
access gained by these newcomers to the English establishment.
Upper-caste Indians did not start life at the foot of Britain's
social scale. They were catapulted over socially immobile,
white, working classes straight into upper-class London.
The path to the likes of V.S. Naipaul is clear.
it is a more tendentious route back to the mid-eighteenth
century slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano, and Ignatius
Sancho. Sancho, a freed slave turned ardent royalist, was
the first black man known to have voted in an election for
the House of Commons. He saw London 'not just as a place
to live in or to make money, but as a set of values, a tone
of voice,' says Sandhu.
ambitious survey does show that there has always been a
rich seam of talent that publishers have failed to mine.
But his central thesis - that this metaphysical conception
of London as freedom unites Sancho's story with those of
Rushdie and Kureishi - is questionable.
a linear narrative that goes from the celebrated slave writings
of Equiano to the posturing rage of V.S. Naipaul proves
a tricky feat. An afterword by the author admits as much.
And for those sceptical of the fetishisation of London,
the study loses its central thread. The book, at times,
risks descending into a list of writers with high melanin
Empire and returning home to the 'motherland' are more coherent
themes that run through all the texts surveyed here. There
are glimpses of exceptional insight into the relationship
between different migrant groups, the propensity of newcomers
to take on some of the most unpleasant of London tropes
(Equiano ended up a slave-owner), and the fact that black
writing is hardly defined by ceaseless radicalism. 'Throughout
the centuries, the primary struggles for most black and
Asian Londoners have been domestic, not political,' writes
remains a presumption of representation that surrounds writing
by brown Britons. Monica Ali, for example, has been gently
criticised for writing about Bengali culture without knowing
the language. The symbols of twenty-first century multicultural
Britain promoted by the publishers happen to be attractive,
mixed-race, young women.
shows that whatever the hue of their complexion, successful
writers are automatically part of an elite. Their stories
are the perspectives of people rather than 'cultures'. This
cocktail of literary archaeology, social critique and storytelling
reopens a window on a marginalised world.
The Guardian, UK