Painful tour of capital whi*zes by main sights

London Calling
December 19, 2003

If you admire the work of Hanif Kureishi, especially the film My Beautiful Laundrette , you may enjoy Sukhdev Sandhu's London Calling . If, like me, you do not, you will probably want to chuck the book across the room in disgust. Fully 50 pages of it, one-tenth of the total length, are devoted to Kureishi, on the grounds that he "made London a viable terrain for the Asian and black writer to exploit". Sandhu's prose strives to be a pale reflection of Kureishi's preening narcissism.

London Calling claims to be the first attempt to explore black and Asian writings about London. Although the docking of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948 marked a historic moment in the immigration of dark-skinned foreigners to England from Asia and Africa, this had actually started in the 16th century. These immigrants came mainly as household servants, prostitutes and entertainers at court and left behind nothing of much literary interest. But their very presence induced a canny Shakespeare to create Othello .

They were followed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, by slaves from the colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean, some of whom eventually married whites and settled in the metropolis.

Sandhu says he is concerned with "the black and Asian people who have told stories about black and Asian London from the 18th century to the present day". How puzzling then that he omits the famous writings of the Indian scholar and reformer Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who visited London in the 1830s (and is commemorated by a blue plaque in Bedford Square); the flamboyant visit a few years later of the entrepreneur "Prince" Dwarkanath Tagore, who became a friend of Dickens and Queen Victoria (and lies buried in Kensal Green); and the wonderful letters of the young Rabindranath Tagore, who lived in London in 1879-80, and again in 1912-13, just before becoming the first Asian to win the Nobel prize for literature.

Until Sandhu reaches the postwar period, he constructs London as it was for blacks and Asians from secondary sources, however incomplete. But even after 1948, hefails to do justice to Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Salman Rushdie, who both wrote strikingly about London; omits Farrukh Dhondy's collection of short stories East End at Your Feet ; and overlooks Vikram Seth, Amit Chaudhuri and even Benjamin Zephaniah.

Regarding V. S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon, two authors who wrote about London and both hailed from Trinidad, Sandhu predictably champions Selvon: he gets 40 pages to the 20 pages devoted to Naipaul. Sandhu acclaims Selvon as "one of the greatest postwar writers of any colour" and quotes extensively to prove his important legacy to a literature of London that "evokes pain, not in the cold and pickled voice of the sociologist, but as a folk lament, pub sigh, the sweet-voiced threnody of the street-balladeer". Naipaul, on the other hand, Sandhu says, isolated himself from the people and produced writing about London that "lacks the vulgarity, the quickstep neologism, the amped-up fidgetiness of the best London literature". But how many people read Selvon now, apart from specialists in post-colonial literature? The only current edition of Selvon's novel The Lonely Londoners is in the Longman Caribbean Writers series. Naipaul, besides winning a Nobel prize, is one of the world's most admired writers - not least by Sandhu's hero Kureishi.

Poor research and poor literary judgement aside, Sandhu's own prose is no pleasure to read because he constantly strains for effect and becomes pretentious. A typical example is: "This voice, with its manic calls for urban revolution, and its invocation of metropolitan cataclysm, entropy and riotous apocalypse, may not be the sole true voice of Black London. It is, nonetheless, one that reflects the panic, hysteria, and livid confusion its inhabitants have often felt from the 18th century to the present day."

Scholars such as Michael Banton and Rosina Visram have already told us a lot about how blacks and Asians have lived in London. A fresh perspective is required. I had hoped Sandhu's book might offer it, but it short-changed me.

Perhaps London Calling will provoke a cultural or literary historian to write a better book on this interesting subject.

Krishna Dutta was born in Calcutta and lives in London. She recently contributed a story to Kin: New Fiction by Black and Asian Women .

London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City

Author - Sukhdev Sandhu
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 498
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 00 257182 X

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