John McLeod, Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis (London: Routledge 2004) ISBN 041534459X (hbk) £60.00, $105.00; ISBN 0415344603 (pbk) £19.99, $34.95.
There has been something of a recent surge of books on postcolonial/ post-colonial London writing: Sukhdev Sandu’s London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City (Harper Collins 2003); John Clement Ball’s Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis (University of Toronto Press 2004) and John McLeod’s, Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis (Routledge 2004). The two former books have previously been reviewed in Literary London and the interested reader might also find these reviews worth turning to.
In a sense, such books testify to a convergence of academic concerns. Not only has the writing of the city become an established and much theorised area of enquiry, but so much postcolonial writing by migrants and their descendants (whether temporary or permanent), has always occurred and continues to occur within the former Imperial metropolis of London, a city whose ‘literariness’ has itself become increasingly popular due to the efforts of writers such as Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair.
Yet, there is a wider, more popular interest than this, as even the record companies have got into the act of reflections on ‘postcolonial London’, issuing a recent compilation, London Is The Place For Me: Trinidadian Calypso In London, 1950-1956 (Honest John 2003). This features (among others), Lord Kitchener’s (Lord Kitch’s) eponymous song of migrant celebration: ‘London Is the Place For Me’ . Apart from being a tuneful CD to play on your computer while writing that overdue article on postcolonial London, this suggests that academic interest in some ways echoes popular interest in the contemporary public narration of London as a comfortably cosmopolitan, globalised world city; a newly reinvented centre of benign and chirpy multiculturalism, heading onwards to a successful Olympic games. From the point of view of postcolonial reading as a political practice, such popular, positivist sentiment runs a risk of not only eliding the history of London as a contested space between different minority ethnic groups and the white ‘British’ majority, but also hiding the continuing legacy of London as a very stratified, post-Imperial city where issues of social equity and power between different groups still hold firm. Such were some of the aims of Steve McQueen’s London based site-specific installation, Caribs’ Leap/ Western Deep (2002), which has recently been discussed by Jen Harvie in Staging the UK (Manchester University Press 2005).
It is one of the principal virtues of Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis that McLeod is aware of such political contexts and indeed, conscious of the basic political problem in discussing London orientated postcolonial writing. London is and always has been a problematic ‘centre’ for Anglophone postcolonial writing, as it s unrivalled position in the field is at least in part due to its past as that very centre of the British Empire that so much of this purposively marginal writing wishes to to dislocate or challenge. So the idea of a ‘postcolonial London’, rather than say a ‘postcolonial Port of Spain’, or a ‘postcolonial Mumbai’, runs the risk of reinstating the very binary opposition of centre and margin created by Empire, which much postcolonial writing sets out to challenge. McLeod’s first chapter does an excellent job of succinctly summarising and elaborating on such debates and is by far the best theoretically informed account available, in terms of postcolonial literary theory, of what happens when we conjoin the terms ‘postcolonial’ and ‘London writing’ in a meaningful and serious way. This aspect alone, to my mind, made the book worthwhile and it is certainly worth recommending the book to anyone studying or researching the subject. McLeod also wrote Beginning Postcolonialism (Manchester University Press 2000) and he has a well deserved reputation for being able to make coherent sense of the difficulties and controversies of postcolonial theory in such a way that students can follow them: he brings these same qualities to Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis.
The remainder of the book moves through a series of chapters which revisit some of the chief texts in the emergent canon of postcolonial London, as well as considering new non-canonical writers, but the discussions are always informed by and engaged with, the key debates raised by postcolonial literary theory and its politics. This acuity remains the book’s central advantage over existing accounts of postcolonial London. There are some surprising recontextualisations which bring such fresh discussions to apparently old topics. Sam Selvon is discussed alongside Colin MacInnes in Chapter 1, as a depictor of 1950s London and the utopian/ dystopian fantasies and reality of the first immigrant arrivals. Chapter 2 focuses on V.S.Naipaul’s representations of London as a ‘belated’ and ‘ruined’ Imperial City, which are compared to more challenging and positive subversions of Imperial nostalgia by Doris Lessing and Janet Frame, members of the diaspora of the white settler nations. Chapter 3 locates a range of female writers whose work has been rather marginalised in existing discussions of London writing, or that has previously not been seen with this perspective : Buchi Emecheta, Joan Riley and Grace Nichols. It is shame though that Andrea Levy wasn’t included here, as in many ways her novels offer perspectives these others lack. Chapter 4 examines Linton Kwesi Johnson, Hanif Kureishi (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) and Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) as representers of the apparent disarray of London in the face of racial riots in the 1980s. In placing the cosmopolitan, hybridising ‘high-culture’ of Rushdie against Kwesi Johnson’s politically directed dub poetry of the street, McLeod produces some interesting conclusions. Chapter 5 maps images of water and the river Thames in the work of some rather less well known writers: David Dabydeen, Fred D’Aguiar and Bernardaine Evaristo. This latter chapter had some of the most cogent, politically informed writing about these important but neglected figures that I have seen. Throughout the book the reader is invited to see familiar literary landscapes in novel and surprising ways.
While I didn’t always completely agree with McLeod’s individual readings of some of the texts, he cannot be criticised for lacking rigour or failing to be attendant to the literary dimensions of the works. What interested me more were some of the ramifications and issues raised by the book’s central arguments, as these are are informative about some of the problems of engaging with postcolonial London writing from the framework of postcolonial theory. For McLeod, postcolonial theory provides as way of challenging and reading beyond the sometimes blithe acceptance of London as a benightedly happy, globalised multicultural world city. In this sense, his argument is implicitly at odds with Sandhu’s decidedly celebratory London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City. So while both books are about a rewriting or reimagining of a city by migrants, McLeod’s view is that such a reworking also draws attention to its tensions with the continuities and legacies of Empire: in this case the continuing history of British racism towards such migrants (and opposition to this by the communities concerned), in a variety of different forms, is the strongest of these dubious gifts. (See in particular McLeod’s ‘Coda: No fenky-fenky road.’ [189-194]). Postcoloniality in terms of London means in McLeod’s view (14): ‘The resistant spatial practices which have emerged within the city by those who have contested the conditions in which they have been forced to live, as well as (and more depressingly) the evolution of new forms of racial and cultural differentiation that continue to divest power from London’s racialized people and keep them “in their place”’. He therefore deploys in particular Stuart Hall’s (14-16) notion of the postcolonial as including an essentially contestatory opposition to Empire and to its racialised category of White Britishness, which it turn was defined in opposition to the category of ‘Black’ within the racialised discourse of Empire. McLeod cites Hall’s argument in ‘New Ethnicities’ with approval, and accepts the idea that ‘Black’ was an unproblematic unifying category for successive waves of the new post-war migrant communities (93-94). ‘White Britishness’ therefore becomes in this sense somewhat synonymous with the maintenance of Imperial values. It is for this reason that Naipaul is — as he usually is — condemned as anti-postcolonial thinker and an apologist for established views of the order of Empire (71-3). It is also for this reason that the black’ female writers are seen as expanding a collective black conflict with white mainstream society, rather than representing a feminist challenge to the overwhelming masculinity of much Black political discourse. In simplifying McLeod’s argument in this kind of way, I am being somewhat schematic, but this is a consistent line of approach, which we could raise a number of objections to.
First, what are the bounds of ‘postcolonial London’ and how far does basing it’s contestatory definition around ‘blackness’ (and slipping therefore almost imperceptible into an account of the origins of writers identities), run the risk of occluding and eliding other migrant groups to the city? There seems no room here, in such an intellectual framework of the postcolonial, for Irish novels of London life like Beckett’s Murphy, nor for Chinese writers like Timothy Mo. Nor does there seem to be room for the literature produced by groups that may not be deemed to be of the vanished Empire, such as the immigrants Jews and Europeans, or the Turks and Kurds. Novels which refer substantively to London, but which are not written in English, or which are by temporary student migrants would also seem to disappear from our view. For example, the Sudanese Tayeb Salih’s famous Arabic novel, Season of MIgrations to the North (Heinemann 1969). Would a writer such as Ishurigo be classed as simply a British London writer, if he were to write a substantial novel set in London, because Japan was never colonised by any Western country?
Second, do not the different groups ( for example, African, African-Caribbean, the various different forms of South Asians to name just a few) and the individuals located within such groups, have evidently different histories in terms of their being within London and their progress through recent London history? While I share with McLeod a worry about the current growth of identity politics based on different ethnicities and religions, I am just as uncomfortable with the transcendental signifier of Blackness because it does so much to elide specific histories and peoples. In addition, what of their being first or second generation immigrants, or indeed from differing socio-economic positions? It is noticeable that McLeod chooses Sammy and Rosie Get Laid as his discussion point for Kureishi, but of all Kureishi’s works this is probably the one that most unproblematically maintains a sense of back-white racial opposition (as well as scenes of riots). In contrast, The Buddha Of Suburbia is much more of an account of how such racial categories need to be challenged and subverted by individuals, like the protagonist Karim, that ‘strange kind of Englishman’, who feel that they are the people rubbed out in such oppositional categories. (One of Kureishi’s cleverest tropes in The Buddha of Suburbia is to make the transgression of bisexuality against sexual identities, parallel with that of hybridity against fixed categories of black and white.) At the very least there is a danger in McLeod’s account of making the category of Black become so unifying and idealised, that it minimises possibly different and transgressive positions within it.
A third question, is that if postcolonial London becomes defined by such oppositional contestatory models based around race alone, then it also runs the risk of implicitly forming a postcolonial London canon that is determined by this. Where does this leave, for example, a fine play like Kwame Kwei-Armah’s, Elmina’s Kitchen (2003) whose subject if that of the impact of ‘Black’ crime on the ‘Black’ community and whose only iner-racial incident of note, is Digger’s torching of a competing South Asian restaurant and its occupants. As McLeod correctly notes of Kwesi Johnson’s poetic account of the 1980s riots, ‘fire’ might be seen as ‘righteous’ (135-137), but fire and iner-racial attitudes and conflict, isn’t always as simple as this, as Kwei-Armah suggests to us. Could we also include historical novels, like S. I. Martin’s Incomparable World (1997), a fine portrayal of former African slaves in 18th Century London, or a novel like Jamila Gavin’s recent children’s novel, Coram Boy ( 2004)? Neither of these are about modern day race relations and thus seem relatively unlike most of McLeod’s other choices, despite their London setting.
My fourth question, was raised first of all by Mike Phillips in his review of Sandhu’s London Calling. (Mike Phillips, ‘From Slaves to Straw Men’, The Guardian, Saturday August 30, 2003, available online at: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1031668,00.html) These are the twinned questions of the place of texts from popular culture, like Phillip’s own important work in London crime fiction, and also whether there is a limitation imposed in distinguishing as postcolonial what Philips would call ‘British Black Fiction’. To take just the first of these it does seem to me that there is little in Postcolonial London of what we could call popular culture, with the arguable exception of Kwesi Johnson. Yet, surely any canon of postcolonial London writing should embrace the range of texts that represent writing in all its forms: from Meera Syal and Mike Phillips to Rushdie and Frame. While McLeod does attend to novels and poetry as most others don’t, he makes no attempt to trace the ways Black and Asian drama ( Talawa, Tara, Tamasha, Kali) has engaged in a very similar positional rewriting in London, if not always directly about London. To take the second question, collapsing the meaning of the postcolonial into the critique and contestation of racism as McLeod tends to, should offer an answer to it. However, this then raises additional problems, as I have discussed.
My final objection is to ask whether in the end this type of definition based around the notion of blackness, ends up in collapsing postcolonialism, which is often regarded as a way of writing and reading attentive to certain kinds of concerns, into a genre based on the writer’s origins and therefore into a kind of crude identity politics? This would suggest that no white British born writer could be meaningfully postcolonial, even if their interests clearly engaged with the topics in McLeod’s definitions, as do, for example, the London based sections in Julian Barnes’ recent historical novel about 19th Century racism and antiracism, Arthur and George (2005). In a similar fashion, it would seem to preclude any texts by white, British based writers that used London to focus on a postcolonial interrogation of modern English identity and whiteness as Joy Wilkinson’s play Fair ( Nick Hern 2005) recently did for Northern England. There is perhaps a broader issue at stake here, which Paul Gilroy raised in Postcolonial Melancholia (Columbia University Press 2004). This is whether such deployments of categories of ‘race’ and ‘otherness’ may fail to help politically towards creating a more equitable and socially just society, because they remain trapped in reinscribing the very oppositions they challenge. As Gilroy suggests in his rather humanist account of the ordinary conviviality of multicultural communities in Britain (read London), there is a sense in which multiculturalism does seem to work in practice, but if we accepted that to be the case, then should a multicultural, postcolonial London canon omit any writers that choose to represent it as such, from its scope?
To Cite This Article:
Steven Barfield, ‘Review – John McLeod, Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis (London: Routledge 2004) ISBN 041534459X (hbk) £60.00, $105.00; ISBN 0415344603 (pbk) £19.99, $34.95’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2006/barfield.html. Accessed on [date of access].