October is Black History Month in the UK and so there is no better time to continue reading and loving Sam Selvon’s stories of the post-War Black Caribbean community in London. This The Housing Lark review moves on to the 1960s from the 1950s as depicted in The Lonely Londoners, where for the group of friends centred around Battersby and his sister Jean the most pressing concern of all is where are they going to live?
Battersby lives in a dilapidated room in Brixton, which is decorated with wallpaper with an Aladdin’s lamp design. He has taken to rubbing them in turn in the hope of a genii appearing ‘the wall to crack open and money come pouring out, a nice woman, a house to live in, food, cigarettes, rum.’ With no genii in sight, Bat is hiding from the rent collector because he is skint. When Charlie Victor finds out he doesn’t have the rent money, he offers to put another tenant in the room to reduce the rent and that is how we and Battersby meet Harry Banjo: ‘the greatest calypsonion in town,’ who soon suggests they pool their money and buy a place together.
Battersby’s sister Jean lives upstairs with her roommate Matilda. Jean is a ‘hustler,’ and all the friends are accepting of it, including Bat. With the rest of the group, Alfonso, Fitzwilliams, who is married with three kids, de Nobriga – Nobby – a reluctant dog owner, Sylvester, a Trinidadian of Indian origin, Gallows, forever searching for a lost fiver, and Poor-me-one, the dope dealer, they hatch a plan and agree to club together, with Battersby collecting everything… which could be rash. Their plans for giving up smoking, drinking and women to save money are bold and Gallows is kept busy watching out for those breaking the pledge in their usual haunts: reasoning that summer is for carousing, not saving!
Trying to earn back some of the money he should be holding onto, which he has of course dipped into, Battersby organises an excursion to Hampden Court and a grand day out is had by all:
Half an hour later, men lay down on the grass rolling. Some pull out their shirts, some belging, some picking their teeth, and a few old fellas catching a snooze. Bat put his head in Matilda lap and looking up at blue skies. If you ever want to hear old-talk no other time better than one like this when men belly full, four crates of beer and eight bottle of rum finish, and a summer sun blazing in the sky. Out of the blue, old-talk does start up. You couldn’t, or shouldn’t, differentiate between the voices, because men only talking, throwing in a few words here, butting in there, making a comment, arguing a point, stating a view. Nobody care who listen or who talk. Is as if a fire going, and everybody throwing in a piece of fuel now and then to keep it going. It don’t matter what you throw in, as long as the fire keep going…
After the excursion, the women – Jean, Matilda and Fitz’s wife Teena – take them in hand, give them a few home truths and get the plan back on track. The book is perhaps of its time and ‘the boys’ have some sexist attitudes towards the women characters, but you can’t help thinking they should have been in charge from the start! The group is a lively bunch of friends, and even though some of them are what might be called in Scouse, ‘right chancers,’ you are rooting for them to win out over the rent collectors, police, estate agents and coach drivers that plague them so. Despite money going through their hands too quick, leading to some occasional bouts of poverty, they are determined to live as much of the high life as possible in this cold, grey place. They’ve got big dreams and determination, and it’s a shame the ‘Mother Country’ – which asked them to come and then resented them for coming – doesn’t appreciate them better. The racist Conservative election leaflets get a mention and they are warned a few times that people might not sell to them.
…to English people every black man look the same. And to tell you he come from Trinidad and not Jamaica – them two places a thousand miles apart – won’t matter to you, because to Englishers the West Indies is the West Indies, and if a man say he come from Tobago or St. Lucia or Grenada, you none the wiser.
I love Sam Selvon’s writing, which so perfectly captures the way the friends talk with each other when their plans are going well and when they’re going a bit less well. His characters and some of the situations they find themselves in seem like they could have happened when I was last living in London over 10 years ago, instead of back in the Fifties and Sixties. For all that The Housing Lark was written so many decades ago, finding decent affordable housing in London is still too much of a headache and getting out ahead requires being a bit of a chancer and having the luck go your way. If you enjoyed reading The Lonely Londoners, you won’t want to miss The Housing Lark.
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