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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas