The best thing on TV just now is The Big Narstie Show. You might disagree, but you’d be wrong. It’s a late night Channel 4 chat show, hosted by the eponymous rapper and South London comedian Mo Gilligan. One of the reasons it’s so good is that it’s refreshingly different. It’s not aimed at middle class white people. They make fun of David Mitchell for not understanding the language of the street (our phrase, which probably shows that we didn’t always understand it either) and feed Jimmy Carr Magnum tonic wine, an elixir of sexual virility. The famous comedians become the butt of the joke. And the audience are all in on it.
It would be easy to say that programmes like The Big Narstie Show demonstrate that we’ve come a long way from the London of Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’, but that’s probably not true. The well-documented difficulties imposed upon the Windrush Generation by the Conservative Government this past year demonstrate that; a thread of disgraceful discrimination that finds its beginning in the communities depicted in Selvon’s book.
The life of his characters is hard. Scenes where one of them catches a seagull from the window of his room and eats it sit so easily amongst their trials that it is only after reading that the reality of that sort of life begins to occur to you. Moses, the man we accompany throughout the book, has life weighing heavily on his shoulders. ‘As if, on the surface, things don’t look so bad, but when you go down a little, you bounce up a kind of misery and pathos and a frightening - what? He don’t know the right word, but he have the right feeling in his heart. As if the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they fraid to cry, they only laughing because to think so much about everything would be a big calamity’.
Apparently Selvon started writing the book in standard English, converting it into a creolized third person narrator when he realised he was unable to convey properly the experiences of his characters. Authentic insight into community is an immensely powerful thing in art, and the voice of this book creates that. Like life on Moses’ shoulders, the book weighs heavily upon you for a long time after finishing. Life is too difficult for too many people. It still is.
Yet Selvon infuses the book with a seam of hope. Often that is through Sir Galahad and his experience and his outlook, but more powerfully it is moments when Moses could be speaking for anyone who has lived in London.
‘The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge’, ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross’, ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground’, to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning: ‘Last night, in Trafalgar Square…’
There are differences amongst us, of course there are. But that’s the beauty of life. And that’s the beauty of London. We are well reminded of the joy of walking on Waterloo Bridge on a summer evening, of waiting to meet someone at Charing Cross, of wandering underneath the blazing lights of Piccadilly Circus. Really, we’re all the same.
Towards the end, the narrator gives us an insight into Moses’ outlook on the world.
‘Sometimes, listening to them, he look in each face, and he feel a great compassion for every one of them, as if he live each of their lives, one by one, and al the strain and stress come to rest on his own shoulders’.
A life lesson isn’t what you came here for, but compassion… This book is crammed full of it, for its characters and their difficulties, and for the city they live them in. Compassion. This book is a reminder of our urgent, screaming need for more of it, still, 60 years after it was written.