London Calling, Sukhdev Sandhu's study examining London
through black and Asian eyes, is long overdue says Faisal
London 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.
While 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.
Sandhu's 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
Such 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.
One 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.
But 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.
Sandhu's 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.
Sustaining 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 counts.
Perhaps 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 Sandhu.
There 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,
Sandhu 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.
Source: The Guardian, UK
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