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‘At the top of the dial’: A Review Essay on Sukhdev Sandhu, London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City (Harper Collins 2003) ISBN: 000257182X

Steven Barfield

Sukhdev Sandhu’s book has already created something of a stir in newspaper review columns and literary circles, which means that those interested in Black and Asian writers connected with London probably already know about it. It has been both extravagantly endorsed and stringently criticized, which suggests it has touched a nerve in some aspects of contemporary British culture. As I am reviewing it for an academic journal, rather than for a newspaper, I shall be both considering the book and some of these telling reactions in newspapers review columns.

In the main, there is very much to commend in this voluminous, expansive account of how Asian and Black writers imaginatively reconstructed London in their own terms as a kind of city of the mind, whose representations have come to influence how contemporary Londoners see themselves and the city. It is that unusual species of academic writing: a good, indeed gripping, read. As a literary history its coverage is impressive: from the 18th Century shopkeeper, writer, former slave and homilist Ignatius Sancho (a correspondent of Laurence Sterne), to contemporary writers both literary (Kureishi, Rushdie) and to those more popular and generic (Victor Headley). While it could be objected that many of the writers discussed are already well known exemplars of Black and Asian British fiction (Sam Selvon, George Lamming, V.S.Naipaul, Caryl Philips, Fred D’Aguiar); the earlier chapters on 18th and 19th Century Black and Asian writers dwell on those much less known to the general public or even to specialists in the postcolonial field. Such a criticism would also miss the point, that one of the book’s principal aims, is to make an argument as to the essential continuity of black and Asian writing about the metropolitan capital London, in contrast to an accepted and still common history locating its beginnings in the post-war period of the 1950s, with the Windrush generation and after.

It is similar, therefore, in certain ways to C.L. Inne’s magisterial A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, 1700-2000 (Cambridge U P 2002), but Sandhu’s book makes for an easier, more narrative orientated reading and there are some crucial differences of intentions which make the books effectively complimentary, rather than competing. (Sandhu’s book is both much more polemical about its argument as to continuity and written more for the general reader than the professional academic. Inne’s book concentrates more successfully on certain unknown writers before the post-war period.) As Sandhu points out, it is this continuity critics have missed because: ‘blacks and Asians tend to be used in contemporary discourse as metaphors for newness’ (xviii). In addition, he points out that the historical ‘metrography’ that he is charting, is one marked by multiple perceptions of what London means for Blacks and Asians who experience and then write about it. This includes both their given ‘locations’ and the means by which they attempt to locate or relocate themselves:

Not only have colonial authors lived and worked in a variety of different boroughs, but they have also imagined, perceived and described the city in very different ways. … Class, race, gender, historical context and personal psychology have all inflected their descriptions of the capital. … There is no single black or Asian London. (xxii)

This brings us to a crucial point about one of the distinctive aims of Sandhu’s books: it is as much about London as it is the Black and Asian writers who have inhabited it. Instead of a now traditional postcolonial opposition between the metropolitan centre and a marginal Empire/commonwealth, which postcolonial writers strive to subvert or challenge, through ‘writing back to the centre’: we see a metropolitan centre that was effectively being rewoven in a multiplicitous, multiethnic image, as soon as it emerged. London as capital of Empire, was no less changed by Modernity, than were the subject people of the British Empire: in both cases, what was traditional was remade. In this respect, Sandhu’s project is akin to what he praises in certain contemporary migrant/ second generation writers (Fred D’Aguiar, S.I. Martin, Caryl Phillips, Gbenga Agbenugba) who tease out parallels and contrasts between epochs of London to illustrate the historical continuities and differences of Black and Asian experiences in the capital. Even though Sandhu’s book is broadly chronological, he praises the non-linearity of much black and Asian writing about London (294-7). One advantage he perceives in such an approach, is that they can show a black and Asian London than is at least partially synchronic, for example, in D’Aguiar’s use of the Thames in Sweet Thames to centre very different historical moments of black London life (312-320). London is not therefore simply a bad thing or a good thing in itself, but crucially something that can be empowering, because it can be changed and promotes growth.

I would still argue that London has been good to people coming from the old Empire, just as they have been good for London … They found in this old, old city a chance to become new. To slough off their pasts. London gave them the necessary liberty. (xxvi)

The idea that London is itself a kind of already ‘deconstructed’ Imperial metropolis, rather than the centre of the Old Empire, indeed of today’s Britain, raises some significant problems for any postcolonial theorisation of the binary divide between metropolitan and marginal and the postcolonial writer’s (presumed) attempts to subvert this. How can a postcolonial writer subvert or resist a London that was never the centre of the Empire or even of Englishness/ Britishness in the first place? How can a diasporic writer maintain a dual identity in a London, if it turns all such writers into Londoners, rather than either migrants to Britain or unwanted immigrants from elsewhere? These are rather large theoretical questions and it is perhaps one of the shortcomings of the book, that it fails to really address them, (the book rather sidesteps postcolonial theory, which may irritate some readers).

I just want to consider one of these questions for a moment. What does it mean for Londoners to possess a diasporic sensibility within London? One suggestion would be that they restlessly negotiate between what they have ‘lost’ (they are metaphorically exiled from their homeland), and what they have gained (modernity allows them to literally remake themselves and their culture). They can resist what they perceive to be the racism of their adopted country, and simultaneously challenge those parts of their native traditions that they wish to analyze. In Sandhu’s, otherwise intelligent, well-informed and well written chapter on Sam Selvon, for example, this type of tension is not really apparent. London is the subject of love (‘only Selvon loves London with all the recognition and toleration of its faults that the word “love” implies’ [180]) and this is in part, because London is ‘changing, becoming creolized’ (182). The term ‘creolized’ is too easily inserted here. Presumably, he is referring to Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s theory of cultural creolization in the West Indies following linguistic hybridity. However, it could easily be mistaken for the ‘melting pot’ theory popular in twentieth century American discourse, where immigrants melted down and lost their distinctiveness. As in Blue Mink’s 1969 hit, ‘Melting Pot’:

What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough enough enough to take
The world and all its got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score

The discussion of Selvon, seems in part a defense of the former by Sandhu; against Mike Phillip’s charge, that Selvon’s characters are ‘comic caricatures or sentimentalized victims’ (182). (Phillips, originally a journalist, is a well-known black British thriller/ detective writer. He is also the co-author of Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain [Harper Collins 1998], and most recently the largely autobiographical, London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain [Continuum 2001]). I do have sympathy with Sandhu here, as Phillip’s remark seems to imply we should only read black and Asian literature as a type of social realist reportage, where positive representations of their ‘constituency’ are crucial, and trying to understanding the specific aesthetic dynamics of Caribbean post-colonial literature in diasporic writers is simply irrelevant.

Nevertheless, it leaves to one side the crucial question of whether or not the type of creolization Selvon’s texts might or might not invoke, is perhaps a type of postcolonial critique and an aesthetic politics produced in the face of British racism. For that matter, do Selvon’s characters ever really fit in, or does his principal protagonist Moses remain ultimately a marginal figure in a London where marginality is sometimes less noticeable? Moses’ unsuccessful, attempted return to the Caribbean in Moses Ascending, arguably, leaves him a permanently liminal figure in terms of social identity, neither British, nor finally West Indian. Little of this should be news for the academic reader and has been discussed fruitfully by major critics of Selvon (particularly Susheila Nasta), and most recently, in Martin Zehnder’s impressive essay collection: Something Rich and Strange: Selected Essays on Samuel Selvon (Peepal Tree Press 2003). There is in general too little discussion in London Calling of the body of the existing critical literature on writers such as Selvon or indeed many of the others — though this would surely be germane to critiquing the kinds of social realist views that Sandhu singles out in his introduction:

For too long black literature has been considered in extra-literary terms. It is treated primarily as a species of journalism, one that furnishes eyewitness accounts of sectors of British society to which mainstream newspapers and broadcasters have little access. … black writing comes to be viewed as a kind of emergency literature, one that is tough, angry, ‘real’. (xxiii)

This is a curious stance: surely there is already a large body of critical work, which exists on the likes of Kureishi, Rushdie, Jean Rhys and Caryl Phillips? Yes, of course there is. However, Sandhu is thinking about how it is read by general audiences, not how it is taught and studied in Universities, or even Schools and this returns us to the fact that this book is aimed at general readers. This is why the discussion of Mike Phillip’s remarks about Selvon does not occur in the context of academic debates about the latter’s work, or the aesthetic strategies of the Caribbean novel. To be fair, such references are there in the endnotes which would suggest Sandhu is familiar with these debates, while Phillips is perhaps unaware of them, or indeed, the exact Caribbean dimension to Selvon’s work.

Faisal Islam in a generally positive review in The Observer, made a point that one of the central (and to his mind questionable) themes of London Calling is that: ‘[a] metaphysical conception of London as freedom unites Sancho’s story with those of Rushdie and Kureishi’ (Faisal Islam, ‘Capital Accounts’, Sunday August 17, 2003, The Observer available online at: politicsphilosophyandsociety/story/0,6000,1020191,00.html). This seems to me an interesting criticism and explains why Sancho, a former Slave but keen royalist, is such a central touchstone for Sandhu’s book and why Sancho is keenly defended from charges of ‘colonial lackeyism’ (183). This is more than anything else, a book about writers and their ability to be empowered by London in creative terms, and indeed to change both themselves and it. If, as previously noted, the literary analogues of London Calling in terms of methodology, are historiographic novels by writers such as Caryl Phillips, then the closest thematic parallel is with Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia and its chameleon-like protagonist’s ability to reinvent himself and to view London as a source of opportunity rather than problems. Sandhu approvingly cites some lines from Kureishi’s Sammy and Rose Get Laid: ‘We love our city and we belong to it. Neither of us are English, we’re Londoners you see’ (249). In fact, the affinity between Sandhu’s book and Kureishi’s work, explains why the chapter ‘Pop Goes the Centre’ is a particularly strong one. However, even if Kureishi does indeed eschew the mode of straightforward social protest literature and its desires to challenge racist definitions of what it means to be Asian, this is to underestimate the fact that his work largely function within just such a framework as offering a different kind of response. The Buddha Of Suburbia, after all, is studded with images of both straightforward racism against Karim and Orientalist stereotyping of him offered by Left-Liberals. What is different is the character’s response and the strategies that Kureishi chooses to deploy. But we can make a larger point here, that Sandhu’s polemical argument would appear to severe something of the established and perceived relationship between these writers and their communities. London may represent freedom for many black and Asian writers, but is that paralleled in the communities they are usually taken to represent? Perhaps not, would be one possible answer, though this is not something the book considers. An implication of this argument would be that traditional views of black and Asian literature as representing a presumed community as a kind of literary version of identity politics is itself problematic. After all, we do not worry much about who Martin Amis or Jeanette Winterson is representing. Perhaps such views of the necessity of communal representation do effectively reduce writers to no more than pseudo-journalist or ethnographers.

Hassan Mohamdallie in the Socialist Review made the point that the story that is told is by far too optimistic and is irritated that it stereotypes the Left’s view of both blacks and Asians as simply that of ‘victims’. (Hassan Mohamdallie, ‘Capital Views’,November, 2003, Socialist Review, available online at: Leaving aside whether these two criticism are warranted or not, one should say that in its emphasis on London as freedom, London Calling would seem to equate creative opportunity with capitalism’s continuing and successful growth. London as capitalist metropolis occasions the possibilities of the idea of largely personal freedom that Sandhu deploys to such effect, but do none of the books on London by black and Asian writers question such a correlation? What of the fact that many of the contemporary writers that Sandhu focuses on, would see themselves as part of that same Left? Is individual freedom, ever the same as social freedom? This topic is not discussed in the book.

The sharpest and most extensive criticism, however, has come from the novelist Mike Phillips in a review in The Guardian, ‘From Slaves to Straw Men’. (Mike Phillips, ‘From Slaves to Straw Men’, The Guardian, Saturday August 30, 2003, available online at:,12084,1031668,00.html) This is an abrasive review, replete with some journalistic grandstanding and is unlikely to win much favour with literary critics or students. It begins by arguing that the most knowledgeable and well-read academics in the field of black British fiction (which he seems to conflate with such work as his own thrillers), are abroad rather than in Britain. He may have a point in objecting to the categorization of Black British fiction as ‘postcolonial’, but he does not really tell us what he objects to about this description. Is it all too theoretical and Left wing, for journalists to make much from? Does it leave out too many British novelists concerned with addressing specifically British issues? Phillips then spends much time reaffirming his criticism of Selvon, in the context of what he takes to be Sandhu’s critique of political correctness. He seems to be irritated here by Sandhu’s objections (above) to his own criticism of Selvon’s characters, which he then equates with an attack on ‘political correctness’.

Spurning criticism of his characters, Sandhu writes approvingly: “Selvon prefers to reveal them in all their foolishness, their venality, fear, aspiration, confusion, passion, rather than have them stand tall and man the barricades in the war for racial liberation.”

He goes on to say that Sandhu, like most non-Caribbean critics is missing the point that Selvon’s characterizations are based on ‘racist needling’. However, who are these mysterious Caribbean critics and why is this kind of view not typically represented in the not inconsiderable body of critical work on Selvon? Phillip’s overstated argument about relations between the East Indian and African Caribbean populations in Trinidad, would also seem very questionable from a historical point of view alone, bearing in mind Selvon was born in 1923 and The Lonely Londoners was written in the 1950s. However, perhaps the biggest problem for this kind of viewpoint, determined by aesthetics of social realism, is that it misses the obvious point of Selvon’s irony. The continual jokes about ‘blackness’ in The Lonely Londoners, which are made by the African Caribbean characters about themselves are intended to highlight the racist discourse of ‘blackness’ that imprisons and demeans them. The characters are not fully conscious of these processes which ideologically locate them, but they are cognizant enough of this to make jokes about it as a complex kind of transformation and defusal of the way themselves are pictured. Rather than the Selvon representing black identity in terms of ‘foolishness, venality and a childlike gullibility’, as Phillips puts it, one could equally easily speak of generosity, camaraderie, and a stubborness in the face of considerable adversity. Moreover, what of Moses who buys a house and becomes a landlord and self made-man in subsequent books? Again, all of this is familiar from the existing criticism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Phillips places great store on the docking of the SS Windrush in 1948 being a decisive historical event, and thereby undermining Sandhu’s claims for continuity. In historical terms he is clearly right to do so, but as Sandhu’s book is about writers, rather than the communities they could be taken to represent, it has less clear-cut significance. Although since Sandhu is basically writing a literary history, rather than producing a postmodern theoretical bricolage, it would still appear as if the arrival of SS Windrush very greatly intensified whatever tendencies in burgeoning multi-racial London that he perceives as already begun. I was much less convinced, by Phillip’s objection that there is no value in Sandhu comparing Caryl Phillip’s The Final Passage and Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, because they depict different historical periods (the 1950s and the 1970s respectively). This would seem to imply that novels are direct historical documents, which attest to unmediated truths. Sandhu is surely right to read them as very different kinds of responses to the crisis of the 1980s, whatever there subject matter. Whether he is right to favour the ‘optimistic’ Kureishi over the ‘pessimistic’ Phillips, (or, for that matter, the even more pessimistic Naipaul), is clearly another question altogether.

Where Phillips make his strongest objection (and it seems to me inescapable), is that there is a great deal of black and Asian London orientated writing left out, particularly from novelists that are more central to popular culture. I do not know enough about the fiction he cites, but would suspect that it tends to not only be genre based, but to represent a London that is much less exoticised and celebratory, and may well present a more traditionally realist social aesthetic. It may indeed be more radical in its views, if less so, in aesthetic terms. What kind of views of London does such writing present and how might this modify the picture Sandhu evokes? This is the kind of challenge offered by his book and suggests that London Calling opens up avenues of opportunity. Perhaps in the end, this book is more of a creative intervention, that an orthodox literary history. It seems telling that Sandhu is particularly emotional, when recounting how D’Aguiar’s Sweet Thames includes film footage of the youthful Trinidad Calypsonian Lord Kitchener singing ‘London Is The Place for Me’ (316-7), on his disembarkation from the SS Windrush. Sandhu, does single out moments of youthful migrant idealism, that colour the complex story and these do diminish the bad experiences, while emphasising creativity and renewal. It is not mentioned in the book, but Lord Kitchener actually went on to live in London and then Manchester for some 17 years in all, marrying his English wife Marjorie and raising a family, before returning to Trinidad. Throughout his time, he composed and sent back regular calypsos for Carnival, winning many roadmarch awards, while at the same time leading a successful life in Britain.

To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield – ‘At the top of the dial’: A Review Essay on Sukhdev Sandhu, London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 2 (September 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].