At the grubbier end of my street in north London is the Somali mosque that was burned down earlier this month in an arson attack. The other day I asked at the police cordon if any arrests had been made. ‘Not that we know of’, said the duty officer. A smell of charred wood hangs over this dreary, out-at-elbow part of Muswell Hill.
People complain that Somalis are heavily ‘welfare-dependent’, and have no wish to integrate into British society. It is true that immigrants today, with the internet, cheap flights and satellite television, are more likely to see themselves as members of a foreign country, hosted by, but not emotionally attached to, Britain. Diversity is here to stay, however, and many of us like it that way. Jamaican pepper sauce, bottles of Polish beer and Indian spices are all on sale at my corner shop.
Gabriel Gbadamosi, a writer of Irish-Nigerian descent, is well placed to chronicle the vagaries of our mixed-up, multi-racial London. Vauxhall, his debut novel, is set in SW1 districts south of the river. I knew Gbadamosi slightly at Cambridge in the 1980s, but was unaware of his background. His father, I now learn, had Yoruba tribal scarrings (16 of them) on his face; inevitably family life in Vauxhall was affected by anti-black slights. Gbadamosi, one of six brothers and sisters, lived by the river amid some hardship.
Vauxhall is an affecting work, that shines a light on the multi-shaded, multi-ethnic London we have come to know. The novel, narrated by an Irish-Nigerian schoolboy named Michael, unfolds during the trying if now far away (for Gbadamosi) late 1960s and early 1970s. Through a series of vignettes, Michael tells us of the alcoholics he sees daily under the railway bridge by Vauxhall Tavern, and the police who delight in arresting truanting black schoolchildren.
The sights, sounds and smells of south London are communicated through childhood’s innocent gaze. Racism is perceived as simply a fact of life. ‘We haven’t let you into this country to beg’, a white man reprimands Michael’s older brother Connor, before Connor biffs him hard. Violence between black and white is otherwise rare: the aggressors, once stood up to, turn on their heels, and Connor is prepared to fight back. As they say in Jamaica: first try rebuke by tongue, then fists.
In pages of vivid prose, Gbadamosi conjures Vauxhall’s cultural pasticcio of Jamaicans, Africans, Irish and Guyanese. He hints at antagonisms between the African and West Indian communities. Africa, to many Caribbean immigrants, represented the old fear of the continent of darkness, with its unwanted reminder of slavery. Michael’s sister Busola is teased at school for being ‘bush’, or African. Any departure from the Queen’s English was reckoned by older British West Indians to be ‘bushman talk’, that impeded social betterment in the mother country.
Whether Vauxhall is fiction or autobiography is unclear, but frankly unimportant. Call it a ‘truth-telling’ novel, in which details from the author’s London childhood provide a documentary authenticity. Like B.S. Johnson before him, Gbadamosi puts the most humdrum if revealing of autobiographical details into the writing. Memories of listening to Yoruba-style dance-floor music and of eating Ambrosia cream custard out of tins intrude seamlessly. Vauxhall is a book of rare poetic insight and humour that absorbs from start to finish.
Roland Watson-Grant was born in Jamaica some 30 years ago but is resident now in the US. Sketcher, his debut novel, is a witty Mark Twain-like diversion that tells of superstition and mojo-conjuring among the swamp folk of the Bayou during the Reaganite 1980s. Nine-year-old Skid Beaumont, the narrator, discovers magic gifts in his older brother Frico, who has the power to fix broken things simply by sketching them. Using his magic drawing hand, perhaps Frico can ‘fix’ life for the Beaumont family in their one-room swamp shack?
A belief in miracles pervades the Louisiana swamplands, as it does the Afro-Carribean mind. Having grown up in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, Watson-Grant says he is familiar with the Caribbean’s intermingling of Asian, white and African bloods. In some ways, Jamaica’s racial diversity made it a more ‘modern’ society than postwar Britain. Following the Woolwich army barracks murder, however, British calls for an ‘immigration slowdown’ are increasingly heard. The fire-blackened mosque in Muswell Hill remains out of bounds behind barricade tape. POLICE LINE. DO NOT CROSS.