Archive for the ‘Selvon, Sam (3)’ Category

Moses Migrating, by Sam Selvon

February 15, 2009

selvon3And so we come to the final volume of Sam Selvon’s London trilogy, Moses Migrating.  I reviewed the background and first two volumes of the trilogy a few weeks ago.  As a short refresher, we first meet Moses Aloetta on the platform at Waterloo Station, waiting for the boat train with new immigrants to arrive — The Lonely Londoners is an exploration of what blacks (all known as Jamaicans) experienced in the London of the 1950s.  In Moses Ascending, published in 1975, Moses had moved “up” and bought a condemned building of flats in Shepherd’s Bush, installing himself as the landlord in the penthouse.  Alas, things have become worse for blacks in Britain and get worse for Moses, who ends up living in his own basement.  In a bitter way, that’s where we have left Moses so far.

So where do we find him eight years later when Moses Migrating opens?

I don’t rightly recollect when it was the idea of going back home hit me.  It could have been one time of any time when I was down in the dumps to pick up the apples that fall when my cart upset.  But I could tell you one thing for sure, that down there in the grimy basement in Shepherd’s Bush, feeling like a trapped animal while my erstwhile (white) lackey Bob and his bride Jeannie occupied my penthouse on the top floor, it was not hard to wish for a change of scenery and circumstances.

Moses is going “home” to Trinidad but, being Moses, even he is not sure whether this is a visit to celebrate the Carnival or a permanent relocation (“Just entertaining the idea of leaving Brit’n gave me the creeps.”)  And so we head to Waterloo station and the boat train again — this time going in the opposite direction.  Moses has retained ownership of the Shepherd’s Bush tenement (just in case he comes back), with Galahad in charge as manager.

The first of Moses Migrating‘s three themes is the story of the boat trip to Trinidad; it is a kind of a floating version of Moses’ London.  He is stuck in cabin 13B, on the lowest possible deck next to the engine room, with three cabin mates — two black, one white — in a “community” not unlike that he experienced in London.

Lackey Bob and his wife Jeannie, are spending some of their new-found wealth and are on their way as well to celebrate Carnival.  They are in first class but they arrange for Moses to be able to visit them by passing him off as their chauffeur and handyman.  The class structure of London has been repeated on the boat.  Moses’ voyage “home” is beginning to look a lot like the recent past.  It is an omen that when the cruise ship pulls into dock, Moses is not only not on deck to bear witness to his return to Trinidad, he’s passed out drunk in his bunk.

The second theme of this final book explores our hero’s attempts to relocate himself  into this old world.  He takes up residence at “de Hilton” — where class structures are again replicated — but spies his Tanty Flora (the woman who raised him) selling oranges across the street on his first morning there.  He begins to visit Tanty in her slum and finds Doris (the new orphan Tanty has adopted, just as she took in Moses), with whom he promptly falls in love.

Throughout this section, Selvon does an excellent job of exploring the conflict that Moses is experiencing — of class, of location, of  just what is “home”.  None of these have answers, so he has created his own:

Out on deck, ere we left the English Channel, I had come to the conclusion as Brit’n faded on the horizon that I would be a credit to the country, an ambassador not only of goodwill but good manners.  The idea put a different complexion on my circumstances.  I now had a purpose, which was to show the outlanders in the Caribbean that Brit’n was not only still on her feet, but also still the onlyest country in the world where good breeding and culture come before ill-gotten gains or calls of the flesh.  I would go forth with a stout heart and proclaim that Johnny Walker was still going strong, that the British bulldog still had teeth, that Britannia still ruled the waves.  This self-imposed undertaking not only steeled me but fired my ambitions.

And so Moses, who does not find anywhere now to be home, sets himself the goal of explaining the one he has just left to the one he left more than 25 years earlier.  The overwhelming sense of hopeless dislocation begins to grow.

Part three of the book is introduced when Moses arrives at the inspiration that, for Carnival (that’s the pre-Lent festival which is every bit as important in Trinidad as the more famous, bigger versions in New Orleans and Rio), he will appear as the image of Britannia from the recently discontinued one pee coin.  (I toyed with putting the image in this post, but in some ways it would be a visual spoiler for those who want to create their own version as they read — if you want to see it, click here.)  Tanty and Doris agree to make him a costume, shield and trident and cart so that he can be paraded before the Carnival judges.  A black male, posing as Britannia from the one pee coin.  In the final touches, white lackey Bob will pull the cart, Jeannie will be a fawning subject at Britannia’s feet and a tape recorder hidden under Moses/Britannia’s robe will play Rule Britannia as he passes the judging stand.

Going any further on the plot in this book would be a spoiler.  Let me just say that it is a more than fitting conclusion to an amazing trilogy.

Moses is not “rootless”, rather wherever he has lived, try as he might, he has never been able to establish any viable roots that will last.  The diaspora and dislocation that he is part of comes from the remnants of Empires that have now ended — the Caribbean blacks went to London, followed by the Commonwealth Asians; the other faded Empires, such as France, had their own versions.  The tensions this dislocation caused in the Mother Countries are well-documented but what it felt like to the individuals involved far less so.  Selvon’s trilogy is an exploration of how hope turned into hopelessness, not just for Moses but for many like him.

It is also a story with incredible contemporary relevance.  While the decline of Empire caused the diaspora that Moses is part of, the rise of the global economy has caused an even more complex one today.  Jobs have definitely moved, but labor must be equally mobile.  The underclasses that were necessary to make London function in The Lonely Londoners are every bit as necessary in the cities of today, only now there are far more cities involved.  The tensions and feelings that Selvon explores now exist not only in London and New York, but even in second-tier First World countries like Canada and Australia — “immigration” is an issue everywhere.

Selvon’s trilogy deserves to be read in that context.  Certainly the world he explores is less complex than today’s, but that in itself is an advantage because it clarifies the issues and brings them into focus.  Moses is an example whose experience is being recreated globally today — and his inability not just to go “home” but to find a home has a painful pathos to it.  The Lonely Londoners, the best known of this trilogy, does stand as a book alone — it is only when you also read Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating that you begin to see Selvon’s much bigger picture.

For an interesting contemporary exploration of a book that deals with similar, but current, themes check out Trevor Berrett’s review and interview with Imran Ahmad on his book Unimagined, a Moslem boy meets the West (and I admit to not yet having read the book).  The interview in particular offers some guideposts to connecting Selvon’s world with that of today.

Also, an update on availability.  As noted in my earlier post, I couldn’t find a copy of Moses Migrating when I started this project — Rienner fortuitously published one at year end 2008.  The volume I have says they are also publishing it in the United Kingdom.  I can’t find it on any of my normal book-buying sites in the UK  but would presume it will be available soon.

I suspect these availability issues, different publishers and the periodic disappearance of these books from backlists illustrates copyright issues that have kept Selvon’s work unjustly in the background.  I can only conclude by saying that this trilogy represents three books which readers will find most rewarding.  Selvon deserves the last word as Moses tries to state why he can’t explain Britain to Doris:

But how can she understand how much I owe the country that took me in and nursed me all these years?  I was hungry and they gave me fish and chips; I was thirsty and they gave me a cuppa; I was penniless and they gave me dole; I was destitute and today I am Landlord of a Mansions in West London.  I was even awarded a prize once, Tanty, by the National Front, which is the very British they say against black people.”

“A prize, Moses?”

“Yes, a one-way air ticket to Jamaica.  If I had return fare I would of gone, too.” 

Two-thirds of a trilogy by Sam Selvon

January 23, 2009

selvon11The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon

We first meet Moses Aloetta on the platform of Waterloo Station, waiting for “a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat train”.  While there, a “Jamaican” friend named Tolroy comes up, also waiting for the boat train.  Tolroy is waiting for his mother — who, when the boat train arrives, turns out to be accompanied by an aunt, two other relatives and their two children.  Tolroy has a job that pays five pounds a week — so it would be wrong not to share the fortune.

selvon3And so we are introduced to The Lonely Londoners, a novel first published in 1956 that is every bit as relevant today.  In a few pages, in “creole” dialect, we will be introduced to Harry “Sir Galahad” Oliver (that’s whom Moses is meeting), Big City, Five Past Twelve, Harris and a host of others.  Welcome to the London of the mid-1950s.  All written by the man who would become known as the “father of black writing” in Britain.

I was unaware of Sam Selvon and his novels until an on-line exchange some weeks ago with Max at Pechorin’s Journal.  We had been talking about Damon Runyon and his current relevance and Max mentioned Selvon as a comparison.

Literally only minutes later, after some internet searching, I had discovered that the “father of black writing” in Britain had migrated to Calgary, Canada (where I live) in 1978 and lived there until his death while visiting his native Trinidad in 1994.  I felt ashamed — for 16 years, I had lived in the same city as an internationally recognized author and known nothing at all about him.  As you will find out, that is part of the sad story.

The Lonely Londoners is a truly wonderful book and I am not even going to try to summarize it.  I will point visitors here to two excellent reviews that I cannot hope to improve on — Max here and Stewart at booklit.  Please visit either or both, but I would like to add my own impressions (as opposed to a good review) of this book.

The first thing that impressed me about Selvon’s book is the way that he conveys a notion of the “underclass” and the life that it lives.  Every metropolitan city has an underclass — in Athens and Rome, they were slaves, but the same is true today of Hispanics in Los Angeles, Haitians in Montreal, Tamils in Toronto and Vietnamese in Calgary.  The Lonely Londoners takes us back more than half a century but it captures the fallout of what this underclass experiences — they wash the dishes, pick up the trash and direct the traffic in jobs that no one else wants.  They also have dislocated their lives, based on optimism and hope, and things aren’t turning out quite as they hoped.

My second impression has to do with the “lonely” part of this novel’s title.  In the conventional sense of “lonely”, it doesn’t apply at all — the book is full of the way they relate to each other.  True, that comes down to cadging a place to sleep (because no one will rent them a room), borrowing money from anyone who has it (a job is a definite sign of status) or just bumming a meal.  Whatever, there is a sense of community with these Jamaicans (at the time, everyone with an off-hue skin in London was a “Jamaican”) — the loneliness of the title is a collective identity, not an individual one.

And finally, and most importantly, this is a book that despite its pathos and sadness (go back to those reviews that I referenced earlier) conveys a sense of humor, hope and, ultimately, optimism.  In the Penguin edition that I read, the first 92 pages set and build the story — and have a lot of that humor — but the best part starts only then.  For 10 full pages, without so much as a comma, Selvon departs from the dialect and indulges in an impressionistic soliloquy about London that is truly amazing.

I will confess to being an advocate of the declarative sentence and impressionistic writing is not my forte but these 10 pages held me for every word — it captures a picture of the city that is most impressive.  And Selvon moves into another gear after that.  While the final pages of the book have much conventional action, the sub-text is a contemplation of  community and the notion of “home” unlike anything I can remember reading for a long time.   The Lonely Londoners was a very good read up to these pages — with them, it became a great book.

Moses Ascending did not appear until 19 years later and, for persons of color, much had changed.  True, there had been legislation supposedly protecting rights, but it had been followed by the politics of Enoch Powell predicting that blacks “will have the whip hand over the white man.”  Race riots had taken place and skinheads were a phenomenon.  For people of color, such as Moses and Selvon (I should note here that Selvon is not “black” in the sense of contemporary terminology — like V.S Naipul, he is an Indian from Trinidad), the world had changed.

That history comes from an excellent introductory essay to the Penguin edition of Moses Ascending by novelist Hari Kunzru.  He also offers the following relevant thoughts for this book:

In his introduction to a 1982 edition of The Lonely Londoners, Kenneth Ramchand warns against ‘loose talk about a Moses trilogy’, on the grounds that while the Moses of the earlier book is ‘seeking answers to profound questions with an intensity that suggests a closeness to the author…the latter books…suggest a disengagement by the author from his protagonist which at times…feels like cynicism or evasion.”  Unfortunately for Ramchand, his attempt to preserve the purity of The Lonely Londoners was made difficult by Selvon himself, who peppers Moses Ascending with references to its predecessor.  It’s hard to escape the conclusion that what discomforted Ramchand wasn’t so much ‘disengagement’ as the biliousness of an ageing writer who felt he’d been denied his critical and commercial due.

I quote that at length because it is a fair assessment in one sense, but wrong in another — this book is very much a fair follow-up to the previous volume.  Britain has changed and Selvon has changed; as readers, we should try to understand that change.

In one sense, Moses has definitely moved up the social scale.  He has bought a terrace house from Tolroy — it has already been condemned and is scheduled for demolition, but he has three years to make money off it.  He will rent suites in this “mansion” to people of color who were lucky to find a basement room in the previous book.  He himself has moved into the “penthouse” — if it had an attic, he would have moved higher still — and has started working on his memoirs.

He has also acquired a white footman/batboy/Man Friday, one Bob from the Black Midlands, who pretty much looks after the enterprise while Moses tends to his memoirs.  There is no doubt that employing a Caucasian is a significant step.  For potential readers who are feminists, this is also an appropriate time to warn that Selvon is not post-modern in his attitude towards women, whatever their color — he did get slapped at a 1980s meeting at the Commonwealth Insitute.  In the interests of historical understanding, we may have to forgive him that for a moment or two.

Alas, reflecting the new Britain, he has some “difficult” tenants — the Black Power party has taken up the basement suite as an office and an Asian who is smuggling Pakistanis into the Mother Country is using another suite as a safe house (the underclass of the first volume is being replaced by a new one — that too is part of the overarching story).  Moses, despite what we know from the previous book, is out of touch with this all — just as, we as readers must assume, Selvon, the “father of black writing” in Britain, is also finding himself passed by.

Like The Lonely Londoners, there is humor and hope in this book — unlike the previous volume, they definitely take the back seat.  Moses has lost touch and so for that matter has Selvon.  Hope has been replaced by resignation, humor is used as a source of coping — the world has not got better, it has go worse.

That sounds like a bad recommendation for a book and I utterly reject that — like The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending is a book that very much deserves to be read.  Undoubtedly, in conventional terms, the former is a better novel — but if you are willing to accept that fiction writers can comment on social history, and I do, the second book is every bit as important as the first.  The result is one of the saddest books that I can remember reading in a long, long time — and that is a positive comment, not a negative one.

Which then leaves the obvious question:  Why is Kevin reviewing a trilogy when he has only read the first two books?

Good question.  The first answer is prosaic:  Selvon is an easy author to read (don’t let the idea of dialect put you off; the rhythm is easily established) but not so easy an author to buy.  When I started this quest, I could find one volume in Canada, one in the UK and no sight of volume three, Moses Migrating, anywhere.  That last volume showed up a few weeks ago with a new edition published in the U.S. which hasn’t arrived in the mailbox yet — given that Penguin didn’t publish Moses Ascending in the Modern Classics series until last year, optimistic readers can hope that it will appear in a Penguin version in the next year or two.  If you want to read this trilogy (and you should), be prepared for a quest.

My other explanation is more personal.  I’ve avoided reading anything about what Moses Migrating is about because I want to preserve a sense of anticipation.  I know it wasn’t published until 1983, five years after Selvon left Britain for Calgary — that, plus the title, does convey some implications.  I’ll admit, since I respect the first two-thirds of this trilogy, I can’t wait until it drops through the mail slot.

EDIT:  I have now read Moses Migrating.  The review is here.


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