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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

    They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
    A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

    Dropout generation failed by colleges

    £800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
    Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
    Shazam! Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

    Shazam: Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch