(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 2. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1993)


The Immigrant's Urban Tale ... 40 years On


The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, published in 1956, and Yardie, by Victor Headley, published in May 1992, both have more or less the same tale to tell: the two novels relate the story of West Indian immigrants arriving and settling in Britain. As such, they can be grouped with a certain number of other works that portray the lives of black immigrants in the United Kingdom. The earliest of these is perhaps Jean Rhys's 1934 novel, Voyage in the Dark. Also included in this list would be The Emigrants by George Lamming (1954) and V.S. Naipaul's 1967 novel The Mimic Men.

The Lonely Londoners and Yardie (1) both focus specifically on West Indian immigrants in London and they present the reader with insight into the realities of a subculture which mainstream society does not know very well, a society which, for obvious reasons, is almost totally ignored and when it is perceived this is mainly through the prism of the press and the TV. Often the only other indirect contacts are cultural offshoots like music and foodstuffs.

The two books share a certain number of characteristics and details which it will be interesting to trace. However the forty years that separate their publication have been a period of immense economic and social change in Britain and also for the rest of the world, and this is inevitably reflected in both books.

At the beginning of the 1950s, as Britain was struggling to cope after the end of the Second World War, in certain sectors of the economy there were plenty of jobs to be had. The British Empire had crumbled fairly fast yet former colonised peoples remained British


1. Subsequently referred to as LL and Y respectively where passages are quoted.


citizens. There were no restrictions on their entry into Britain and shipping companies for example exploited this lucrative market. In 1947 547 immigrants arrived in Britain from Jamaica alone. In 1955, for West Indians, this figure had increased to 18,000 per year and by 1965 numbers in the UK had jumped to 850,000, or 2% of the total population. By 1987 the non-white population of Britain was around 2.4 m, which represented 4.5% of the population. Successive legislation over the years and changes in the economic environment have stemmed this flow. However, for the first time, the census carried out in 1991 required respondents to identify their ethnic origin, and it is estimated that around 45% of the non-white population was born in Britain and 33% of these numbers are aged under 16. This second generation, children of the post-war settlers and born in Britain, are growing up and facing problems of their own. The Lonely Londoners and Yardie are, each in its own way, reflections of economic and social reality in Britain, rooted in a lifestyle and a culture that go largely unknown and unsuspected.

Both novels begin with the arrival of new immigrants in London. In the earlier novel the people arrive at Waterloo on the boat train. In the 90s the central character of Yardie arrives at Heathrow. In both cases the newcomers are met by total strangers who have been asked or instructed to pick them up:

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat train. (LL 23)

The methods of transport and the weather conditions tell us that life in London is not one of luxury and comfort. Sam Selvon goes on to portray the lives of black, working class immigrants trying to make a living in the cold, crushing, urban environment of central London. The novel revolves around Moses Aloetta who also seems to be the narrator, and the fortunes and misadventures of him and his group of friends and acquaintances.

The arrival of D (he is only known by this enigmatic initial) the main figure in Yardie is striking in its difference:

The long line of passengers waiting to pass through immigration control was noisy but colourful. After spending over eight hours in the skies they were


impatient... For many it was the first time they had left Jamaica, arriving on the fabled shores of England their heads filled high with expectations. This year, an early spring had spread its warmth over the country. (Y 5)
The sun was bright and warm ... welcoming him to his new country" (Y 9)

D is borne away in "a shiny blue Mercedes 350 sports model" (Y 8). In fact he is an illegal immigrant, arriving in Britain on false papers. A tough boy from the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, acting as a courier for a drug syndicate, he has flown to London with a kilo of cocaine strapped around him. However, he manages to slip away with half the consignment and sets himself up in business, dealing as a cocaine and crack wholesaler around London. The gang he has cheated have put out a contract on his life and among scenes of drug dealing and consuming, rape, knife fights and shoot outs, D rises to become a top "yardie" on the London scene. "Yardie" is short for "yardbird" which is the name for Jamaican street gang members, who used to hold sway over the local back yards. They began in protection racketeering, earning a reputation for vicious violence, and have developed into drug pushers on an international scale. In the novel, D's activites are part of an network that stretches from London back to Jamaica via New York and Miami.

The Lonely Londoners has no such story line. Written as a continuous narrative, without chapters, it is rather more a rolling, flowing portrayal of the immigrants' lives and lifestyles, and as such is an almost seamless account. For the 1956 immigrants London is a cold, hard place. The fog which covers and blurs the capital turns it into a nightmare world, where Waterloo station inspires feelings of nostalgia for home, especially when new arrivals disembark. Of course the difference in climate is particularly hard and the desolation of winter makes the capital even more unbearable:

It have some snow on the ground and the old fog at home as usual. It look like hell. (LL 52)

The "beast winter" (LL 32) brings mornings when the sun shines without heat, hanging orange and unnatural and "the colour of the sky so desolate it make him more frighten" (LL 42). Trying to get settled in London depends on a certain number of basic factors a job, lodgings and someone to guide you round and help you out. Moses is the veteran immigrant who takes in the newcomer, Galahad, and shows him the ropes. The Labour Exchange, "where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up" (LL 45) is the first place where colour prejudice is shown, as the record cards are


marked to indicate "you from Jamaica and you black" (LL 46). As for accommodation, the severe discipline of the temporary hostel is the only alternative to sharing cramped rooms in Brixton, exploited by a hustler, a fellow Jamaican, where the skylight is leaking and "the heat make water on the glass" (LL 126-7). Earning wages of £5 a week and obliged to pay at least £3 in rent, life is hard, and things become even more precarious when there is no work. Galahad, who is a miracle of metabolism, walks round London in the depths of winter in inadequate clothing, but for all his hardiness he is starving and Selvon treats us to comic scenes where Galahad and then Cap hunt and trap seagulls and pigeons in order to eat them.

Life is bearable because of the other immigrants, who are experiencing the same hardships and miseries, and life does have its moments of pleasure, which include dances with music from back home, and the pursuit of women. According to Five, there is not enough entertainment in London, "they too slack in this city the people too quiet" (LL 111). However, Harris organises a big fete in St Pancras Town Hall, with a steel band, but because this is Britain, it finishes at 11.30 with God Save The Queen. Compared to parties at home this is very tame.

There are very few female characters portrayed in The Lonely Londoners, yet whether they are young or older, they all seem to be fairly spirited and independent-minded people. The most colourful is Tanty, a middle-aged or elderly immigrant who decides to come to England to settle with her nephew Tolroy. Tanty is a resourceful and enterprising person: knowing nothing of London but only what she has heard from the others who have jobs, she nevertheless makes her way from Harrow Road to Great Portland Street by tube. She also sets about reforming business practices around Harrow Road (credit, selecting own produce, wrapping of goods). The other black women include Ma, who washes dishes at a Lyons corner House, "Only from the washing up Ma form an idea of the population of London" (LL 82). Agnes runs away from the husband who beats her and Beatrice along with other (white) girlfriends makes the men's lives both bearable and a misery. Bart is one of the loneliest, most pathetic of this new generation of Londoners, as he scours the city looking for Beatrice who has abandoned him.

The new immigrants to London can count on well-established networks of previous settlers who will give them shelter and take them under their wing until they get on their own feet. New immigrants are obviously vulnerable because they are unaware of all the aspects of living in London, as they arrive, borne on a wave of optimism. The "fabled shores" in Yardie are the same as those that attract Tolroy's family:


You write home to say you getting £5 a week Lewis say "Oh God I going England tomorrow." (Y 29)

The newcomer is easily identified because he does not have the right clothes and he gives a £1 note for a fourpenny bus fare. When Moses goes to meet Galahad, for him it is a nostalgic occasion. He thinks back to his own arrival in London ten years earlier, but he is now a "veteran" (Y 138). His sense of déjà vu threatens to make him inured and unresponsive, but an underlying thread in the novel reveals to us Moses' gradual awakening to consciousness. Moses appears to be the narrator, and the experiences and thoughts of individual characters throughout the book slowly fuse into the single voice of Moses who seems to speak for them all.

Every new character in the book is accompanied by a brief account of his earlier life and how he came to be living in London in the early 50s: Big City was a sailor who jumped ship; Five was in the RAF and stayed on in London, ... and yet finally all their experiences are similar. They have to bear the terrible weather: "the changing of the seasons, the cold, slicing winds, the falling leaves, [...] snow on the land, London particular" (Y 137). They have to put up with racism, and are called variously: "darkie" (Y 140), "spade" (Y 141), "nigger" (Y 99), and "coloured" (Y 97):

This is a lonely, miserable city... Here is not like home where you have friends... Nobody in London does really accept you. They tolerate you, yes, but you can't go in their house and eat or sit down and talk. (Y 130)

Luckily there is the network of acquaintances and friends, with whom they can get together on a Sunday for an "oldtalk" and a chat about back home. Nostalgia is a recurrent topic but home is a place for dreaming of and there is no going back. Galahad knows "it ain't having no prospects back home, boy" (Y 137).

However this shrewd assessment hides a certain naive and innocent view of life in London, for it is Galahad the romantic who finds the most pleasure in actually being in London, "just to say 'Charing Cross' have a lot of romance in it" (Y 84). He is touching in his attempts to dress and to pass as an Englishman, as is Harris with his exaggerated British accent.

The change of season lifts hearts though and the immigrant finds it hard to tear himself away from his adopted city "he get so accustom to the pattern that he can't do anything


about it" (Y 141), and Moses realises that by now he is trapped. Standing by the Thames he can see

a great aimlessness, a great restless, a swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country. As if he could see the black faces bobbing up and down in the millions of white, strained faces, everybody hustling along the Strand, the spades jostling in the crowd, bewildered, hopeless. As if on the surface things don't look so black, but when you go down a little, you bounce up a kind of misery and pathos... a big calamity. (Y 141-2)

Black here is overtly the colour of loneliness and quiet desperation.

No such sense of doom nor even the simple faith in life such as Galahad's permeates Yardie though. It is a book that is bursting with immense energy and activity and the story it tells is almost light years away from Sam Selvon's gentle and sometimes humorous novel. Yardie is reminiscent of a Graham Greene "entertainment", such as Our Man in Havana in the almost cinematographic way that each (unnumbered) chapter begins with scene-setting details, usually focusing on a point of detail before going on to reveal the wider picture or to disclose some activity that has taken place in the interval since the end of the last chapter:

The atmosphere was hot and smoky in the basement room. (3/26)
The flame of the lighter flickered twice before it caught. (4/41)
The little boy giggled as his mother lifted him up. (6/72)
The narrow bunk was about three feet away, with a ragged and dirty mattress... (8/103)

The author admits that he wrote it as a film, with short, sharp scenes, and in fact it is this attention to visual detail as much as the portrayal of a marginal world of violence, which has attracted attention to Yardie. Even the police admit that the book has a grim authenticity. Victor Headley professes to be a journalist but he is suspected of having rather closer connections with the Jamaican yardies than he would care to admit.

This attention to detail is somewhat lopsided however, for although the reader comes to know yardie organisation and gang culture, the international drug dealing networks and the London locations where these people operate, in fact the characters in the book are very


thinly drawn. However this only serves to make the shallow psychological motivation for violence even more chilling.

Obviously D and his fellow gangsters are not typical of all immigrants arriving in England in the 1990s, because of their criminal activites, but just like Moses, Five, Bart and the others D faces the problem of getting to grips with London and its weather, of relying on networks of friends and relations to help him out. He may not face the poverty and hardship that the earlier immigrants know, but he still has to find somewhere to live in the metropolis. In fact in his first contact with the city he is just as defenceless as Galahad. After fleeing with the drugs he jumps on a bus to escape and needs to rely on two young boys to help him reach his destination, which is Hackney. He finds refuge with a former girlfriend after deciding not to turn to another friend because it would have been too obvious and too dangerous. D does not spend too long riding around on public transport and before long has made enough profit to buy himself a Mercedes. His associate drives a BMW and they conduct their business by cell phone from their cars. The outer trappings of wealth consists in driving such cars and wearing a lot of "cargo" (heavy, gold jewellery).

For a newly arrived immigrant he looked like a million dollars. (Y 42)

Just as in The Lonely Londoners contrasts are made between veteran settlers and the newcomers: in describing one youth just starting out in a life of gangsterism D concludes that

Judging by his ordinary clothes and the absence of jewellery he was probably newly arrived. (Y 129)

Again, quite often the appearance of a new arrival in the story is accompanied by a brief summary of who they are but more importantly, just like in The Lonely Londoners, stress is laid on their status as an immigrant "Sticks ... arriving from Kingston last year." (Y 38) On the other hand "Piper had been in England for years" (Y 52) and is a kind of father figure to D.

The weather in London is still a cross that the immigrants must bear, despite the warm spring weather that greets D's arrival. He dreads the winter:

The air outside was cold. This was the first winter D had to face and he feared what it would be like in a few months time. (Y 59)


A heavy rain had been falling relentlessly for most of the day and the darkened sky had caused the night to fall even earlier than it did in winter. (Y 147)

The meteorological references in Yardie are less frequent than in The Lonely Londoners where the fog blurs London but does not soften it. In fact London is not such a bad place after all in D's opinion. Waiting outside his girlfriend's block of flats:

D could see and hear the residents' daily life unfold [...] usual everyday scenes in Hackney. The dwellings didn't look new and the stairways and the corridors were far from clean, but it was a long way from certain areas of West Kingston. This is what people called `a poor area' in England, D reflected. It wasn't that bad. (Y 20)

For anyone coming from a poor background in Kingston's tenements, England, no matter how tight things were getting, was still a more comfortable environment to live in. (Y 27)

This begrudging admiration does not prevent D from suffering from the same nostalgia that besets Moses. It is triggered by music or by a sunset:

For the Jamaican-born [...] evenings like these reminded them of the island they had left far behind. (Y 116)

One of those warm nights that make people from overseas long for their homeland, star-studded skies and the gentle brushing noise of the ocean against the shore. (Y 98)

Sometimes talk of home is just the way the conversation turns, and as Moses and his group of friends already discovered:

Once you reach ah foreign, you can never tell how long before you come back. (Y 97)

For D memories of home are also evoked by other events, such as when Charlie gives him a gun:

This was the best gun he had ever had, a long way from what he usually used back home.


Such a casual, throwaway remark underlines the reality of D's amoral existence. Yet, although this portrayal of the depressing and vicious madness of ghetto life is attended by a stark moral silence on the part of the author, there are counterweights within the story. In fact it is the female characters in this book who are the links with outside society and what might be taken for "normal" or mainstream, social values. D is thrown out by Donna for his drug dealing, and she is the one who persuades him to surrender to the police after a car chase. She has steady employment, and Jenny, another girlfriend, holds down two jobs in order to make ends meet. D scoffs at such hard work. Their daily lives contrast sharply with the men's, who don't like to go out too early in the evening not getting to dances before 3 am. Yet the girls born or raised in England present the men with a problem:

too westernised [...] they tended to be inclined to jealousy, inquisitive and argumentative (Y 72)

They are not content to accept the Jamaican man's traditional roaming and infidelity, and no longer prepared to accept what Sweetie, a new arrival, expresses:

I know dat you can cage a man [...] whatever him do outside is up to him. (Y 90)

The women are used in various ways as drug couriers, where the death of the girl is seen in terms of the loss of a load; as points of refuge and more or less as baby making machines. But in England if

a woman have a child the State looks after her, gives her a flat and money weekly. In Jamaica if you don't have a man to help you t'ings get tough. (Y 91)

A girl called Rita is raped as a warning to her man Blue because she is "Blue's t'ing". Like in The Lonely Londoners the women are characters more or less in the background, but Yardie is more overtly macho than its predecessor. It is a story of male exploits, male bonding, respect, hierarchy and status.

They still had that bond, that kind of deep loyalty that binds together for life Jamaicans who have grown up in the same neighbourhood. (Y 16)

The two men laughed heartly. Charlie switched on the car stereo and they sat there, exchanging women stories and jokes... (Y 39)


Curiously though, D is found encroaching on the women's world of "morality" a couple of times. He doles out paternal advice to a 12 year old boy who idolises him, and also to a youth on the point of beating up his girl. It does not stop D beating up his own girl later in the book. The only truly moral figures in the book are Piper, a Jahman Rasta, and D's murdered brother Jerry who was also a Rastafarian. Piper is a respected member of the community who has worked within the black community helping Blacks to help themselves. He is saddened by the way things are developing vanity and the desire for money inciting black on black violence and blames society for letting things get so bad, with young people wanting to emulate the opulent lifestyle of the dealers and the gangsters that they see around them. In the closing pages of the book Leroy emphasises this:

drugs is the only t'ing will take you out of the trap. (Y 162).

This figure of faith and learning has no counterpart in The Lonely Londoners, for even Moses the veteran settler, who bears the closest resemblance to this father figure does not benefit from Piper's position, which is not so much that of an outsider but rather that of one who has risen above the others, morally and spiritually.

As far as the immigrant's story is concerned, the points where The Lonely Londoners and Yardie diverge are easily identified and seem to be almost totally due to changes in society at large changes which are inevitably brought about by the passage of time. In The Lonely Londoners the emphasis is occasionally laid on the affinities that the immigrants have with the white working class, while in Yardie the question of class never arises. Lifestyles have improved generally for everyone, black and white alike. Comfortably furnished homes with TVs and videos are the norm. The most striking difference in lifestyles is the preeminence of music in Yardie. Technological improvements mean that in the 1990s it is possible to have music absolutely anywhere in the home, in the car, the street, and so on, even on the bus, and many references are made in passing to the fact that reggae music is there, with its familiar, comforting beat. Leroy runs a record shop for example, and D and his main rival clash behind the scenes at the London Annual Reggae Music Awards Show. Groups fly in from Jamaica for shows and concerts, and a great deal of the "running around" in the book is due to people going from a dance to a party for example, seeking the music, because the music is a link to roots and also a news medium (Y 48). The other striking difference is the omnipresence of drugs. This is a reflection of D's business activites of course, but as it is not necessarily restricted to the Black communities in modern Britain as it is also an image of a certain urban style, in that drug taking is a commonplace, background detail for quite a wide


section of society. The characters in the book sniff cocaine and roll joints on almost every page, but this is just as casual a detail as if the author had pointed out that the sun was shining.

The passage of time also means that in Yardie there are members of the second generation Blacks born in Britain. D is intrigued to meet a young girl who is of Jamaican descent and looking forward to her first visit there. Similarly, he befriends 12-year-old Harry, a Black boy, but a Londoner.

The Lonely Londoners evokes the problems of integration and racism, and the efforts by Galahad and Harris to dress and behave like Englishmen and to imitate English speech are pathetic. Galahad only succeeds in frightening a white woman and her child (LL 87). Bart, who is light-skinned, tries in vain to pass himself off as South American, in order to divert racist antagonism. Yet, this is not at all present in Yardie. Instead we find affirmations of Black identity expressed by the high priest figures of the Rasta men, and the only racism comes from a policeman who calls a detainee a "wog" (Y 108). High profile policing methods could be interpreted as a form of racist aggression, but the characters in Yardie are independent, autonomous and content to get on with their lives as best they can. In The Lonely Londoners this self sufficiency seems to be imposed the immigrants just cannot break through into mainstream society. Yardie seems to portray this independence as something which is sought, and it would seem to be because the problem of identity is closer to being solved.

In fact, looking beyond its content, the book Yardie, as a commodity, enters this very framework. It was written as mass market literature for inner-city Black Britons, published by a tiny independent Black publisher, X Press, based in East London, and marketed in different kinds of retail outlets such as supermarkets, hairdressers, clubs and clothes shops. The author admits that his aim was to get Blacks interested in reading. Without the benefit of any major reviews it has already been reprinted three times since May 1992.

Although it is slightly beyond the scope of this paper, mention must be made of style and the use of language in The Lonely Londoners and Yardie. In the latter, all the yardies and the Jamaican-born characters speak in strong Jamaican dialect, whereas the narration and the speech of the London-born are all expressed in standard English, with a few items of American vocabulary ("parking lot," "precinct," Y 19). Sam Selvon's technique in the handling of non-standard vernacular English is different in that it is more stylised and he uses it in the narrative parts as well as in passages of direct speech. Unlike Victor Headley, he does


not transcribe spoken dialect directly, but has an altogether more subtle style, and his modification of dialect makes the book more accessible than Yardie. However, the great potential of these differing techniques is that they help in asserting Caribbean cultural identity.

Through these two books we have a privileged, close-up view of some of the elements that make up the mosaic of cultural patterns that are both outside mainstream British society, while at the same time enriching it. Selvon knows this:

London is a place like that. It divide up into little worlds. (LL 74)

Yet, despite the sometimes comic mode of The Lonely Londoners and the dynamic, exciting events in Yardie, both books basically have a serious undertone. Sam Selvon depicts desperate searchings for community and belongingness; Victor Headley shows us an equally desperate fight for survival, motivated by greed and the desire for ever greater thrills. For both generations of immigrants London is a vast map which they cross and recross almost endlessly, attracted by dates, dances, scores to settle and drugs to score. Perhaps Pascal has a point to make here:

Quand je m'y suis mis quelquefois à considérer les diverses agitations des hommes [...] tant de querelles, tant de passions, d'entreprises hardies et souvent mauvaises, j'ai dit souvent que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre. (Pensées 126)



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 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 2. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1993)