Review of 'London Calling' by Sukhdev Sandhu, Harper Collins £20
Sukhdev Sandhu's journey through 300 years of black and Asian writers and commentators on Britain's capital city is very much worth reading. In London Calling we encounter a gallery of people - from Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, a former slave whose ghostwritten memoirs were published in 1772, right through to 'Yardie' novelist Victor Headley.
Sandhu is rightly at pains to emphasise is that there is not one voice but many. It is therefore fascinating to read about people such as Ignatius Sancho (1729-80), a freed slave and man of letters who mixed with the London aristocracy and literati. Sancho is a man of his chosen class. His language reflects this. Having fallen on hard times he moans in a letter to a friend, 'Figure to yourself, my dear sir, a man of convexity of belly exceeding Falstaff - and a black face into the bargain - waddling in the van of poor thieves and penniless prostitutes - with all the supercilious mock dignity of little office - what a banquet for wicked jest and wanton wit.' Sancho reflected the ruling class fear of the (black and white) London 'mob', condemning those taking part in the 1780 Gordon Riots as 'the maddest people'.
Sandhu also quotes wealthy Indian visitor Rev TB Pandian falling in love with London. For Pandian the capital of the empire is a 'Mecca for the traveller in search of truth, a Medina of rest for the persecuted or the perplexed of spirit... Damp, dirty, noisy London, thou art verily a Jerusalem for the weary soldier of faith.'
So there is something revealing in the writings of all Sandhu's subjects. Yet this book has an annoying flaw. In his effort to debunk the view of black and Asian writing as merely 'emergency literature' Sandhu constantly argues that so-called 'political correctness' - and by implication the left tradition - stereotypes blacks and Asians as victims. He asserts, 'Reading histories of immigrants in London one is often left with the impression that if they weren't being bruised and harried by hostile whites, they spent their spare time agitating and organising.'
This is the old right wing ruse of putting up a false argument only to knock it down. The truth is of course the opposite - that the left has always been at pains to argue that those at the receiving end of racism are not merely bound by their circumstances, but full of human potential.
It was not the right wing who decided to bring to light historical figures such as Ignatius Sancho. After all, the project of the right is to deny blacks and Asians any voice at all - historical or present-day. And it was not Sandhu who first trawled obscure archives to prove that blacks and Asians were neither stupid nor passive. Indeed Sandhu acknowledges that it was left wing writers and historians such as Peter Fryer and Rozina Visram in their seminal studies Staying Power and Ayahs, Lascars and Princes who unearthed a wealth of black and Asian experience going back centuries.
Sandhu is also eager to portray London as a dynamic capitalist city full of possibilities for all - so much so that those writers who buck against this partial vision get short shrift. He attacks Caryl Phillips' penetrating novels about Caribbean immigrant life in the 1950s and 1960s: 'Is it the case that dire social circumstances need always to be written up gloomily? And can it possibly be true that life for black Londoners in the past, even in the 1950s and 1960s, was so unremittingly bad?' Well, yes, for the majority of early post Second World War black immigrants, it was pretty bad.
The obvious truth is that black and Asian people's view of London depends upon the nature of their arrival and their class position. It makes a difference whether they came here in bondage, as 19th century upper class Indian tourists or as economic migrants of the Windrush era. These circumstances shape the way they see London, what they write about and the language and imagery they use.
It is noticeable that all the writers Sandhu examines are forced in some way to reflect the divisions in the society in which they move. Despite their efforts they find their lives circumscribed by race. Sancho is painfully aware of the social implications of his colour; the superior-minded Indian nabobs who visit London are offended by the stereotyped racist view of their home country they come across; Hanif Kureishi's novels and films examine the cultural contradictions that the rising generation of British-born urban Asians grapple with.
London Calling is a useful book. It would have been even better if Sandhu had told the story straight.