Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis

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22. Post-Colonial Criticism

His father has been writing a History of Pimlico and is particularly interested in the unhappy conditions of the s, especially for the young. It is as if he has learned nothing and remains to mature. At the airport he watches a plane arrive from Africa through a torrential downpour, from which a number of newcomers disembark: they came down grinning and chattering, and they all looked so dam pleased to be in England at the end of their long journey, that I was heartbroken at all the disappointments that were in store for them.

Greetings from England! Meet your first teenager! His embrace is an act of deliberate defiance towards the violence and hostility visited upon newcomers in Napoli, one which attempts to keep possible the new relations nurtured in his West London enclave. This is a possibility far more radical and responsible than anything countenanced in City of Spades. Making a song and dance 57 The storm that rages in this scene symbolizes the storm of racial violence in Napoli, as well as the stormy welcome which no doubt will await many newcomers in London. Yet, as in The Lonely Londoners, the final sound is laughter, the value of which should not be underestimated.

I would suggest that the novel closes with a moment of profound transformation for both the narrator and his creator. For Selvon and MacInnes the burgeoning popular entertainments of London fuelled by postwar migration and which revolved around song and dance suggest different kinds of social blueprints for a new city, one where the popular creative energies they prized offered strategies of both survival and transformation. To be sure, these are specifically masculinist visions in which the particular experiences and fortunes of women make little impact, and where women are frequently figured in terms of heterosexual desire as erotic objects.

John McLeod

This fact must qualify the progressive character of such work, as well as any enthusiasm we have for it. Years later he remembers feeling with gratification, after years of handling only the overseas editions, the thickness of the paper between my fingers; with the same gratification I saw the dateline on the papers to be the actual date, not that of two or three weeks before. So I was in England, truly in England at last. So although Jacobson had never visited before, he arrived in a country and a culture which he had so long revered from afar, and which London promised to deliver.

London, England, civilization, continuity, culture, order — each seemed seamlessly allied with each other, creating an impression of substance conjured vividly in the image of the thick newspaper pages which thrilled and gratified Jacobson at Dover, and which contrasted to the slenderness of the out-ofdate overseas editions. Not long after arriving in London, Jacobson attempted to locate the house in Tavistock Square where Virginia Woolf once lived. From this address she had composed a series of letters to Logan Pearsall Smith, which 60 London, England Jacobson had read on his journey to England.

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When he sought out the address he found instead a bomb-site where the house should have been: Part of what they [the writers] had meant by Bloomsbury I saw to be these trees and houses, the glimpses above them of some of the buildings of London University, the traffic of Southampton Row. Was there nothing else? With the disappointment that the house should have been scooped out of the square another began to grow. So this was it. I had seen it. True, I had not seen, and thought it unlikely I would ever see, any of the people who had made up the Bloomsbury society; but the physical Bloomsbury was about me.

The disappointment was not with its appearance, which was black enough, and severe enough, and imposing enough; it arose from the very fact of my having seen it. The half-conscious, always-unfinished guesswork which had been so inextricably an aspect of my reading, throughout my childhood and adolescence in South Africa, the dreamlike otherness or remoteness in the books I had read, which I had valued more than I had supposed, were being taken from me, bit by bit. Here was one bit of it gone. I would never again be able to visit a Bloomsbury of my own imagination — a district vaguer and therefore more glamorous than the reality; one less hard and angular and self-defining.

It is a disequilibriating moment, where the alliance of London, England, order and culture comes apart in the derelict and ruined spaces of postwar London. Rather than encountering the substance of English culture in the trees and houses of Bloomsbury, Jacobson discovers its opposite. Many budding writers from colonized countries who came to London suffered similarly dislocating experiences. Coming to London was a vital and inevitable part of their attempts to develop their careers.

Importantly, such writing was considered by several influential editors in London to be the infant additions to the English literary family. All innovations must return to and strengthen the parent literary culture.

John McLeod, Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis

For writers such as Jacobson, to live and write in London was not just to participate in the day-to-day activities of the city, but to be at the heart of a wider English cultural milieu which was familiar to millions. Yet, as the example of Jacobson proves — and as we shall see in the work of V. Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Janet Frame — other writers struggled to discover in London the England of their literary dreams.

Book Description

Instead, they encountered a city substantially ruined by the ravages of war and inhabited by a diverse and transitory population with competing and conflicting loyalties to divergent class, cultural and national affiliations. Refugees from Europe, Irish migrants, Commonwealth arrivants, American soldiers, 62 London, England demobbed service personnel, working-class women — these and others made up a heterogeneous urban populace and contributed to making a city that did not necessarily square with received notions of England and English culture perpetuated overseas.

For these reasons, many newcomers encountered a city which — in its novelty, confusion and ruined condition — seemed disconcertingly lacking in substance to colonial eyes. But whereas V. To live and write in London was not just to participate in English high culture; it was also to discover the means to disrupt and change it as part of a liberating and liberalizing postcolonial critique.

In writing about London during this period, Naipaul, Lessing and Frame directly, if differently, reassessed their relationship with England and English culture. For each, London came to function imaginatively as a location where received imperious notions of culture are threatened with dissolution. As we shall see first with V. Naipaul, the social changes happening in London were by no means always welcome to one reluctant to revise his long-held image of the city as epitomizing the order, culture and civilization of England.

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Naipaul arrived in London from Trinidad in , prior to going up to Oxford. He too was disappointed.

But on arriving in London, he found that the city of his imagination was unavailable. And I was lost.

London was not the centre of my world. Captivated by his cinema-going and reading of Dickens, it is no surprise that postwar London disappointed the young Naipaul. In the place of an England that survives as its own counterfeit, he will locate an England that fails to exist, not because it never was but because it has been lost. He will find that England in the very fact of his belatedness and in the resonant stones of ruin. Its effects can be keenly felt by migrants in the city, which seems to lose its substance as the Empire wanes. It is of a part with the loss he feels of the idealised, imagined London derived from literature and film.

London society was not easily penetrated, or comprehended. Naipaul confessed he held only a superficial knowledge of the country, and in order to write fiction it is necessary to know so much. We are not all brothers under the skin. It might have been possible for me, at the end of my first year here, to write about England.

But now I feel I can never hope to know as much about people here as I do about Trinidad Indians, people I can place almost as soon as I see them. He describes several nights out in London, at the theatre, nightclub and restaurant, which end with him lonely and looking for a bus, haunted by a sense of waste and disappointment. In his depiction of Mr Stone and London, Naipaul registers his self-consciously peripheral engagement with the English in which images connected to weight play a significant role.

Civilization, understood as a care for order, is expressed on the Embankment in the artistic patterning of space where nature and the built environment harmoniously blend into an inspiring spectacle. There is the unhappy recognition born from experience of the fraudulence and disorderliness of London. Mr Stone works as chief librarian of Excal and is fast approaching retirement.

In the autumn of his life, he becomes haunted by distressing sensations of insubstantiality. This is expressed early in the novel in a fascinating and curious vision of London unravelled, its concrete surfaces undone: [Mr Stone] was assailed by a vision of the city stripped of stone and concrete and timber and metal, stripped of all buildings, with people suspended next to and above and below one another, going through all the motions of human existence.

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And he had a realisation, too upsetting to be more than momentarily examined, that all that was solid London, England 67 and immutable and enduring about the world, all to which man linked himself. As a response to these increasing feelings of mutability and weightlessness, he devises a plan which will guarantee purpose for those like himself who consider their lives to be entering a period of decline.

For Mr Stone, such noble endeavours rescue the old men from inactivity by giving them renewed comradeship and a sense of significance; for Excal, it is an exercise in public relations and a way of ensuring loyalty to the company that is enthusiastically endorsed by its head, Sir Harry.

The fantasy of the Knights Companion scheme comes to Mr Stone suitably at night, while he is away from London on holiday with his wife in Cornwall, and is brought into the city from afar. In the creation of Mr Stone and his attempt to realise his vision, Naipaul 68 London, England confronts his conflicting perceptions of London: the fantasy of reassuring metropolitan purpose when seen from afar, and its betrayal both in and by the postwar city.

He manages space with the same punctiliousness. The permanence of habitation is hallowed with age. On several occasions Mrs Springer is connected to the bygone world of colonial late- London, England 69 Victorian society in India.


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One significant object is a tigerskin, which came out of store in excellent condition and which Margaret explained by producing a framed sepia photograph of a dead tiger on whose chest lay the highly polished boot of an English cavalry officer, moustached, sitting bolt upright in a heavy wooden armchair brought from goodness knows where , fighting back a smile, one hand caressing a rifle laid neatly across his thighs, with three sorrowful, top-heavily turbanned Indians, beaters or bearers or whatever they were, behind him. Mr Stone wants a clearly defined, predictable, authoritarian and weighty existence and habitat which will safeguard him from the novelties of time and the feelings of belatedness.

Yet a contrary impulse is also registered in the characterization of Mr Stone, namely the revelation of that sense of fraudulence which has made such indulgence necessary. He may appear to personify the solidity and order promised by London, but he is also a curiously weightless creation, an aggregate of insubstantial surfaces. He stopped, breathed deeply, a theatrical gesture, and closed his eyes. An old man, neat with overcoat, briefcase and hat, standing before the window of the joke-shop, seeming to smile at the imitation glasses of Guinness, the plastic faeces, the masks, the rubber spiders, the joke teeth.

He is also a figure of levity. Indeed, the streaming window which seems to divide Mr Stone from the inauthentic objects on display might as well not exist. Hence, in seeking to avoid mistaking the superficial appearance of life in London for its substance, Naipaul creates a character caught between weightiness and inauthenticity. Naipaul knows that the order and coherency epitomized by Mr Stone and his native city are no more substantial than the troubling image of the boy with the fake teeth.

A disreputable, over-crowded area Mr Stone had always thought it, and he thought no better of it now. The entrance to the Underground station was filthy; in a street across the road a meeting of the British National Party was in progress, a man shouting himself hoarse from the back of a van. Behind neon lights and streaming glass windows the new-style coffee houses were packed; and the streets were full of young people in art-student dress and foreigners of every colour.

Is Whymper descended from postwar refugees from Europe? Indeed, in the final chapter Mr Stone leaves his office to wander amongst the chaos of the transport strike only minutes after learning that Whymper has taken the credit for the Knights Companion scheme. He no longer has a place in London. His attempt to keep insubstantiality at bay has failed.

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