Before London Called: Review of Mike Phillips, London Crossings: a Biography of Black Britain (London, Continuum International Publishing, 2001). 256 pp. ISBN 0-8264-6364-9 £14.99 and C. L. Innes, A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain 1700-2000 330 pp.,Index and Bibliography. (Cambridge University Press 2002) ISBN 0-521-64327-9 £45.00
While in many ways very different books, Mike Phillips’ London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain and C. L. Innes’s History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain 1700 – 2000 nonetheless hold many points of interest for scholars interested in representations of postcolonial London and of ethnic writers’ views of London.
C.L. Innes’s magisterial account, while not concerned with London per se, nonetheless discusses many of those authors discussed in Sukhdev Sandhu’s better known volume London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City (2003). Among those who feature prominently in both Innes’ and Sandhu’s accounts are the 18th century black writers Ignatius Sanchez and Olaudah Equiano. However, despite the somewhat misleading title of Innes’s book, she has relatively little to say about such stalwart postcolonial London scribes as Samuel Selvon and Hanif Kureishi. Innes’s book suggests, amongst other things, just how difficult it is to discuss Black and Asian British literature without a consideration of the place of London in their work. London may or may not be the metropolitan centre they desire, and indeed, their writing may attempts to transform or ‘write back’ to London; but it tends to remain the primal scene that they are most determined by, whether they like it or not.
In contrast, Phillips’s book is a largely autobiographical account of portraits of people and historical moments. These, it suggests, represent a history of what it is to be a Black Londoner and thus a representative of Black British culture. As a work of non-fiction prose, it stakes its broad claim to being truthful in realist terms, in effect offering a very different view of London to the work of both writers of a psycho-geographical persuasion like Ian Sinclair (that tend to elide any distinctively ethnic experience and perspective of London), and those like Sukhdev Sandhu, who concentrate on the ability of postcolonial, migrant writers to find in London opportunities for personal and social transformation. In fact, Mike Phillips is Sandhu’s staunchest critic and Phillips suggests both that it is London fiction like his own that Sandhu tends to ignore and that postcolonial theory has unconsciously suppressed the viewpoint of ethnic Londoners, who see themselves not as migrants, but as Black Londoners first and foremost.
It is hard to fault C. L. Innes for the wealth of primary and secondary research and scholarship on which she expertly draws or for her analytic observations on the complexity of the experience and attitudes of Black and Asian British writers. She is right to suggest that we are only at the beginning of a scholarly process to uncover many forgotten Black and Asian British texts. It is like a jigsaw with missing pieces. But Innes’s work nonetheless does much to make a narrative of what we know as a meaningful account of lived experience. As the title suggests, this is a broadly historicist account of the writers and their cultural contexts that strives to avoid being partisan. For example, her portrait of Equiano suggests how he represents a flexibility of approach to self-making, just as much as he does a fixed definition and assertion of an innate identity. Equiano, like Sanchez, is as much engaged in ‘writing back’ to the metropolitan values of Empire, as he is in ‘writing in’ to such values:
He is an owner of slaves while declaring antagonism to slavery; he is a trader and skilled artisan, who takes pride in serving his master well; he asserts his love for his master as he asserts his anger at being betrayed; he participates in a scheme to repatriate Africans to Sierra Leone, while remaining an Englishman; he marries an English woman.
This reading of Equiano is just one example of Innes’s method at work. She attends to writers in their multiple histories, rather than trying to force them into the political narratives favourable to current criticism. A second strength of this impressive book is how well it integrates much less well known Black and Asian writers into the narrative. Robert Wedderburn (1761-1835) uses sophisticated literary techniques to condemn his white father’s ill-treatment of his black slave mother, while the slave Mary Prince, whose story is narrated by a white scribe, can be seen as speaking through the narrative imposed on her. Another chapter shows how Britain and often London become tropes of semi-Utopia by slaves escaping from America, such as William Allen who referred to himself as: ‘a refugee from American despotism’ (p. 111). Later Black British writers such as Mary Seacole and B. M. Malabari were principally travellers and reformers, rather than concerned with protesting their own identity, or, like Cornelia and Alice Sorabji, were more interested in critically responding to Anglo-Indian accounts of the British Raj. Throughout A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain 1700-2000, the emphasis is on patterns of similarity and difference occasioned by the work of the writers themselves and the types of work that appealed to various audiences and constituencies. For example, in a chapter that reminds us of the central importance of London to both colonial and postcolonial narratives, (‘Duse Mohamed Ali and anti-imperial journals’), Innes discusses all too briefly a journal called the Keys, the journal of the League of Coloured Peoples in London. This suggests how crucial London is to any history of the complex negotiations and transactions of Empire and anti-Imperial writing.
Mike Phillips, on the other hand, makes no such claim to academic objectivity, although his narrative is intended as much as an example of what it is to be Black and British (not postcolonial); as it is the autobiographical musings of a hard-headed, successful detective thriller writer. While we can question how representative some of his illustrations and subsequent analysis really are, and indeed, wonder about some of his idiosyncratic judgements, there is no disputing the vivid, muscular style of writing. For those who are worried about the kinds of writings that Sukhdev Sandhu may have left out in his discussions in London Calling, this is very much a sampler of the realist, populist and generic writings that he did not consider. It is the story of being a migrant to Britain who wants to be a Black Londoner and who is prepared to fight for it through a contestation of the city and its institutions (such as Trade Unions). It also the story of deciding against being a literary writer, because genre writing allows an escape from the postcolonial label which Phillips, not unproblematically, associates with a form of perpetually reified migrancy and of looking to the Black Power politics of America and then to Rastafarianism as an alternative to the way black identity was traditionally positioned within socialist and liberal humanist discourse. There is a great deal in this book to exercise the critical faculties of anyone interested in genres of Black London writing that could be considered to be both broadly social realist and also popular critiques of white establishment society. I must admit it is a great shame that few if any critics, have written on Mike Phillips’s own crime thrillers, especially considering his own attempts to transform through intervention what he perceives as an essentially racist literary genre. His comments on this subject in London Crossings are extremely perceptive.
But how radical is it all and at what expense is its distancing from postcolonial culture and questions of origins? Despite its first person earthiness, readers may well want to ask not only about its implied representativeness of something called Black British culture, but also about the peculiar consequences of such a specified and determinedly combative identity. There is an odd moment when Phillips is visiting the Caribbean and staying in some luxurious hotel and is faced with the inauthentic tourist-centred, commodified version of Caribbean culture common in such places. He and the other foreign visitors (presumably Black British, but of West Indian descent) manage to wring out an old-time tune from the forlorn Calypsonian doing the round of tables, much to the Calypsonian’s delight and the chagrin of the rude Black American woman who had humiliated the singer. Phillips seems pleased at their victory on behalf of the man, but curiously unmoved at what should be a connection with his own roots and his own genealogy: it is as if he is a kind of typical British bystander scoring points against the rude, inconsiderate American (pp. 103-111. The chapter ends with one of Phillips’s Black compatriots remarking of the island: ‘This is a good place for a visit, but I wouldn’t like to live here’ (p. 111). One cannot help wondering whether this is indeed what it means to be Black and British and whether this is in fact, silently endorsed by Mike Phillips himself.
To Cite This Article:
Steven Barfield, ‘Before London Called: Review of Mike Phillips, London Crossings: a Biography of Black Britain ’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 1 (March 2005). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2005/barfield.html. Accessed on 27/4/2016.