The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon’s classic 1956 novel about West Indian migrants making their way in the old metropolis, ended on a blue note. Its chief character Moses found himself at the banks of the Thames brooding about things. Chasing skirt, having laughs, rum and revelry to fight off the frigid winters: was this living? It certainly wasn’t enough. He fears “a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country”, and that he and his friends are just “spades jostling in the crowd, bewildered, hopeless”. Perhaps, he wonders, his friends’ joie de vivre has been a lie. “As if the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they fraid to cry.”
By the start of The Housing Lark, published nine years later, life hasn’t changed much. Battersby (aka Bat) lies in a damp Brixton basement thinking about the good life and how far out of reach it appears. He’d like the warmth of a nice woman. Unlimited dumplings and pigtail soup. Most of all, he’d like not to have to worry about rent. His friend Gallows believes that “if a man have a home he establish his right to live”. Bat wants to feel less temporary, to be elevated to at least street-level citizenship. He and his pals cook up a scheme to pool their money and save up for a place, even if it’s in Croydon, they can call their own.
Selvon might have called his novel “The Housing Struggle”. He might also have excoriated racist landlords – and the elected officials, both local and national, that allowed them to flourish. But, here as in his other fictions, he preferred to write about individuals rather than politics, about pavement dreaming rather than megaphone certainties. The Housing Lark’s title sounds like a Galton and Simpson sitcom, and much of its charm lies in the affection its author bestows on its raffish characters – a motley collection of greenhorns, hustlers, and dope dealers. They banter and bicker, double-cross each other, and will do almost anything to get women into bed. Even Bat regularly helps himself to cash he’s meant to be safeguarding for his circle.
There has long been a tendency, perhaps intensified of late by terms such as “the Windrush generation” and the awkward abbreviation “BAME”, for non-white people in Britain to be bundled into “communities”. In The Housing Lark, those communities are often prickly and provisional. Some of the newcomers try to pass as South Americans. Distinctions are made, especially by the black female characters, between good and bad immigrants. “I don’t want no kiss-me-arse Jamaican living with me,” protests Trinidad-born Bat when it’s suggested he take a roommate to share his rental costs. His pal Syl is an Indo-Trinidadian who steers away from Indians because they’re too “curry and dhal”; he’ll imitate one though, if it’ll help him get lodgings with an Asia-loving landlord. He declares his name is “Ram Singh Ali Mohommed – Esquire” and that he comes “straight from the banks of the Ganges”.
Money gets in the way of unity. One of the book’s most suspect characters is Charlie Victor, a rent collector and fancy dan who straightens his hair and splashes out on expensive suits. He bristles when Bat accuses him of selling his soul to the English. “All I believe in, is what bringing me money, because money is the thing that I got to have to live in this world,” he retorts. “What the arse I really care what you think of me? Or anybody else? That don’t count at all. If I had a million pounds, you would fall down on your knees and salaam, no matter if you think in your heart that I is a bastard.”
Selvon was also sceptical about the standard explanation of Caribbean migration to the United Kingdom. It wasn’t, his narrator insists, the result of pious duty toward the Motherland. It wasn’t even about jobs. Far from being thought-through or ideological, it was rather the case that “some fellars just pick up themselves and come with the spirit of adventure, expecting the worst but hoping for the best. Some others just bored and decide to come and see what the old Brit’n look like.” Gallows, previously a stevedore in Port of Spain harbour, is only in England because he got tanked on rum he’d found in a ship’s crate; next thing he knew, he was being charged as a stowaway and had to serve a month in a Plymouth clink.
The Housing Lark was published in 1965, seven years after the Notting Hill riots and six years after the racist murder in that neighbourhood of Antigua-born carpenter and law student Kelso Cochrane. Shortly before he too was killed, Malcolm X visited a number of places across England, including Smethwick near Birmingham where, the year before in 1964, Conservative MP Peter Griffiths won an electoral seat with the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Britain’s first Race Relations Act was also introduced in 1965 – the result, in part, of years of anti-colour bar activism by Bristol’s pioneering black social worker Paul Stephenson.
Selvon’s characters are far from oblivious about how snooty, if not downright hostile English people can be. But they give as good as they get. Syl, spotting a sign in a tobacco-shop noticeboard that reads, “No Kolors, Sorry, Uropean Only”, thinks: “How is a hell of a thing these people don’t want him, when they can’t even spell.” At one point, the narrator even has a poke at the book’s readers: refusing to describe what his characters are like or where they’re from, he demands: “What difference it make to you? All you interested in is that he black – to English people, every black man look the same.”
Selvon is rarely so testy. Slogans and name-calling are not his bag. Even when his narrator engages in reverse anthropology, his tone is gentle: “You think it have a lot of obeah and black magic in the West Indies, but if you listen to some of these Nordics. They say red sky is shepherd’s delight, and if the dog asleep that mean rain coming.” His characters speak a universal language: that of blokes behaving badly. They’re scamps, rogues, feckless. But that’s not because they’re black or because they’re immigrants; it’s because they’re men. “In this world today they have plenty company. Procrastinators and high dreamers like stupidness all over the place.”
If The Housing Lark is the least known of Selvon’s novels, that may be because, as Dohra Ahmad asserts in her introduction to a new Penguin Classics edition, academia – and postcolonial literary studies within academia – “often can’t accommodate humour”. It may also have something to do with his female characters: they run the gamut from prostitutes and bossy matriarchs to naïve Scandinavian au pairs with names like Frieda and Hildegarde.
In other respects though, The Housing Lark is both spry and strikingly resonant. Its centrepiece is an excursion to Hampton Court made by Bat, his friends and their neighbours. Regal and monumental, this is exactly the kind of setting that many writers would choose as a stage to excoriate British amnesia, curricular racism, history as psychic terrorism; Selvon’s reprobates sink a few beers and roll around the grass.
But then, as ventriloquised by the narrator, they look up at a palace bedroom: “You could imagine the old Henry standing up there by the window in the morning scratching his belly and looking out, after a night at the banqueting board and a tussle in bed with some fair English damsel. You could imagine the old bastard watching his chicks as they stroll about the gardens … And suppose old Henry was still alive and he look out the window and see all these swarthy characters walking about in his gardens!” Here the English past is reimagined and creolized. It is confronted – with laughter.
Selvon, though celebrated by writers such as VS Naipaul, Biyi Bandele, and Guy Gunaratne, still tends to be critically patronised. Perhaps it’s his deceptively breezy, digressive style. Or the sing-song cadences of his prose, the way he calls his stories “ballads”. Make no mistake, he can be tart. Of “buttards”, the narrator declares: “That’s a good word, but you won’t find it in the dictionary. It means like if you out of a game, for instance, and you want to come in, you have to buttards, that is, you pay a small fee and if the other players agree, they allow you to join. It ain’t have no word in the English language to mean that, so OUR PEOPLE make it up.”
Ultimately, as much as its lovable characters and its caper-strewn quest, what makes The Housing Lark so special are the music and melodies of Selvon’s prose. His neologisms (liming, eye-gaming, kiff kiff) are delightful. His use of dialect for both narrative and dialogue feels fraternal. Describing the way his characters gab and freeform, he writes: “It doesn’t matter what the topic is, as long as words floating about, verbs, adjectives, nouns, interjections, paraphrase and paradise.” Language is a game for Bat and the boys. It’s also energy, a fuel that keeps them – and us – going.
• The Housing Lark by Sam Selvon is published by Penguin Classics (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.