Two books read for Novellas in November which detail Black men’s lives in London 55 years apart but with many similarities as well as differences. Of course the men in Sam Selvon’s novel, Selvon himself, have fairly recently arrived in London from Caribbean countries, while poet Caleb Femi was born in Nigeria. South London features heavily in both – Brixton and Peckham, respectively; I don’t know Brixton that well but I lived in Peckham for a year in the mid-1990s, well before the gentrification I’ve been reading about in later novels and at the time of the North Peckham Estate, which Femi records in detail in his poems and photographs. Both men detail simple wishes for safety, companionship, some money, some way to advance in life. Both have friends laughing at friends who wouldn’t know what to do with the women they are chasing if they caught them, and both feature strong, uncompromising women.

I bought “The Housing Lark” in November 2021 after it was mentioned on Ten Million Hardbacks’ blog; out of the eight print books purchased that month, I’ve read two so far, but that is only still a year ago. “Poor” came in Bookish Beck’s parcel-before-last in December 2021 and I’ve actually read four out of the ten making up the pile I gathered before Christmas that year!

Sam Selvon – “The Housing Lark”

(04 November 2021)

Is so life was, you had to take chances, and one day your luck might turn. And if you yourself ain’t have anything to offer, it good to stick with fellars like Harry, and Alfy and Syl and the rest of the boys. All of we can’t be blight, Bat think, out of six seven fellars, one bound to be lucky, something good bound to happen to one of we. Bat ain’t care who it happen to, as long as he around to share in the good fortune. (p. 34)

I can’t remember if the characters in this short novel appeared in “The Lonely Londoners” but we’re back in familiar territory with a disparate group of men struggling to survive in a mainly unfriendly and difficult post-war London. We open with Battersby regarding his rented room, hoping the lamps on the wallpaper might issue a genie, wishing for simple things, food, company, money. The plot revolves around the resolve of a group of friends to club together to buy a house – the only way they can see of getting secure accommodation and their own agency.

Maybe it’s not such a good idea to make Battersby the treasurer, as the money seems to fritter itself away … He does run a coach trip to Hampton Court which gives us a hilarious interlude as the participants eat and laugh their way around, observed with some alarm by their White counterparts, and of course it’s the women, Battersby’s sister Jean, her room-mate Mathilda and Teena, unfortunate enough to be married to one of the men, who take the scheme in hand and make it work. Written in dialect like “The Lonely Londoners”, like that novel, too, it’s both funny and tragic, the characters making the best of their situation, destitution only one step away.

Interestingly, it has a very modern comment to make about education:

‘I must say you boys surprise me with your historical knowledge. It’s a bit mixed up, I think, but it’s English history.’ ‘We don’t know any other kind. That’s all they used to teach we in school.’ ‘That’s because OUR PEOPLE ain’t have no history. But what I wonder is, when we have, you think they going to learn the children that in the English schools?’ (pp. 100-101).

A touching and lively novel and an important record of first-generation immigrants’ lives.

Caleb Femi – “Poor”

(11 December 2021 – from Bookish Beck)

This will not be enough for them

so they’ll force us to put it into words

& we will say: When hipsters take selfies

on the corners where our

friends died, the rent goes up. (“On Magic / Violence”, p. 39)

I have read more poetry this year than I have for a long time; I still favour the very clear and direct and I got a bit lost in the allusions in this one (I was mainly OK with the language and dialect terms) but could see my way through a good proportion of them. I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the word as most of them are very hard-hitting and full of pain and distress, but it’s an important and strongly beautiful collection of both words and images.

With poems about the concrete landscape and the miles of walkways connecting the spaces of the North Peckham Estate, the poetry is going to be unyielding and strong, but there’s a lot of feeling, emotion and care in the book, from the unconventional signs of spring (young boys play on the grass, people get the new trainers) to the moving eulogies for Damilola Taylor, Mark Duggan and the Grenfell Tower residents. It’s worth looking at the notes, which explain which poems are memorialising which lost people.

There’s anger and understanding of anger, with some very powerful poems about the “riots”/uprisings and their meanings, and there’s bewilderment at the start of the gentrification which has now hit the South London suburb (I have most notably read about this in “Yinka, Where is your Huzband?“). The images of people and tower blocks work perfectly with the poems, couplets and prose pieces and the work is technically complex and adept, pulling at the heartstrings, raising a smile, documenting how it feels to feel you are every Black man who is shown mistreated on the TV. I hope this reached a variety of audiences, including those people who are portrayed in it and will see themselves in a poetry book published by a mainstream publisher, for once. Rebecca’s review which originally attracted me to the book is here.


These were Books 6 and 7 for Novellas in November, both from the original selection of 15.