Book Review: Mixed company for the lonely Londoners

Andrea Henry visits two sides of the black metropolis - the threatening estate, and the enchanting street; Society Within by Courttia Newland Abacus, pounds 9.99, 310pp; The Street by Biyi Bandele Picador, pounds 10, 292pp
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The Independent Culture
WHEN BLACK people settled in London in the 1950s, it was predominantly the west - Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grove, Shepherd's Bush - that they called home. Samuel Selvon's seminal 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners tells with humour, realism and pathos an intimate story of the capital's first West Indian immigrants. "Home" was a confused issue: partly England, partly the country of their birth. Focusing on Notting Hill, Selvon perfectly captured the tug of both places on the heartstrings. London was bright, if smog-filled, with the new estates and the promise of work as magnates.

Recently gentrified areas were then virtual slums; working-class ghettos. It was a struggle to survive prejudice and unemployment, but once bitten by the London bug - the history, the grandeur, the social life - it was impossible to leave.

Whatever "home" was, it was never intended to be the violent and desperate concrete jungle which is the setting of Courttia Newland's second novel Society Within. Set loosely around White City in west London, it pulls no punches in its description of estate life as a mixture of community and ghetto.

This is a place where people make friends of their neighbours and, excluding the smoking of dope, live law-abiding lives. But it is also a place where neighbours rob and rape each other. A youth centre is both somewhere to socialise, and a place out of which to deal drugs. The estate is home, and yet also a kind of prison.

Newland's description of black London life, confined to one estate, is bleak. Unemployment, drugs, violence and under-age sex feature heavily. Bright young people behave badly because nothing better is expected of them. Adults behave even worse because they have tried law-abiding lives and failed or, arguably, have been failed by society.

It is difficult to fulfil potential in a culture where a first date is a shopping trip with a stolen credit card. And it's a challenge to stay on the right side of the law when you live in an underworld - a society within a society - which possesses its own laws and language to the exclusion of all other people.

Newland dips in and out of connected stories: Elisha is new to the estate, forging new friendships, finding employment, perhaps a boyfriend; Art is struggling to stay off crack, but the only way to stay clean is to escape the estate. Newland's characters are complex but not always vividly created. His strength lies in the depiction of violence and menace but, faced with amiable characters and incidental conversation, particularly among women, he falters, and dialogue falls flat.

Biyi Bandele's The Street, far broader in its scope, is an entirely different undertaking. By contrast, his Brixton setting is full of colour and charm, its people brimming with wit and optimism, even in the face of disaster. Bandele introduces the dream-like into solid urban living, and pads a minimalist cast with fantastical but recognisable characters, all of whom are unhinged in one way or another. It's a wonderfully perceptive portrait of Brixton, with the middle classes living shoulder to shoulder with the destitute. With great style, though perhaps too ostentatious in his vocabulary, Bandele builds two parallel storylines which eventually connect.

When Nehushta is 13, her father falls into a coma. With her mother already dead, she is effectively orphaned. As she emerges from the coma 15 years later, father and daughter rediscover each other until tragedy strikes again, and Nehushta finds herself alone once more. Meanwhile Dada, a failed poet, and his cousin The Heckler, an eloquent voice striking out against Brixton's open-air speakers, have become familiar faces on the streets.

Eventually, Nehushta's and Dada's paths cross - perfectly illustrating the randomness and chance of London life. They are brought together by their mutual fascination with what Dada calls the "Undead": the flotsam and jetsam who hover around Brixton's tube station.

I suspect that Samuel Selvon would not recognise much of contemporary London and its Londoners, though he would certainly be familiar with people living life at the extremes of pleasure and despair. Perhaps for this reason, the experience of the original West Indian Londoners still informs both The Street and Society Within. One of Bandele's character's has a portrait of Selvon hanging in his living room; and Newland gives more than a passing acknowledgement to the fundamental issues of immigration, the hopes and aspirations bequeathed to each generation.

Fifty years on, the story of Britain's black population is merely a work- in-progress, tinged with a warmth and charm which might yet be described as characteristically West Indian.