Books: Black and blue 'neath skies of grey

Adam Lively meets the lonely Londoners
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Extravagant Strangers edited by Caryl Phillips, Faber, pounds 15.99

It is often said that "outsiders" have reinvigorated British literature in recent years, and that some of the best English writing is by people born elsewhere. What is wrong with this golly-gosh approach, as Caryl Phillips points out in the introduction to this anthology, is the implication that before Midnight's Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, our literature was a pure essence of Englishness.

We have always been a cosmopolitan culture. And, ironically, it is our island status that has made us so. Seafaring traditions - and the short- lived Empire - made the British enthusiastic travellers. This mobility brought home a taste for the exotic, a love of narrative-as-journey, a flair for precise description. From Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels to the excellent travel writers of today, British authors have liked to keep their narrators or protagonists on the move.

The very "English" virtues of this tradition - its particularity, its photographic realism - are well displayed in a couple of pieces here by William Boyd and (dare I say it) Penelope Lively. Boyd's essay, about flying between England and his boyhood home in West Africa, is an especially memorable vignette. These two writers qualify for inclusion as children of the colonisers, but the bulk of choices are by the children of the colonised. Here, too, the notation of strange experience is crucial, as the immigrant disembarks from boat, plane or train.

Extravagant Strangers is full of descriptions of London: the grey skies, the red buses, the harsh accents, the humour ("sardonic and with its edge of brutality", according to Doris Lessing) - all as sharp and vinegary as with any first, overwhelming encounter. The metropolitan bias reflects the fact that this is very much a literary anthology. Simply put, writers from abroad have settled in London because of its dominance in publishing, arts and media. A more historical book might have reflected the experiences of Italians in Glasgow, Chinese in Belfast, East Africans in Newcastle.

Phillips goes back to the late 18th century, with pieces by the ex-slave Olaudah Equiano and the excellent Ignatius Sancho, chiding his hero Laurence Sterne for not speaking out forthrightly against slavery. The core of his selection, however, is the talented generation of West Indian writers who came here after the Second World War: the likes of Sam Selvon, George Lamming, VS Naipaul and ER Braithwaite. Their vision of post-war, austerity London casts a considerable shadow. There is a different kind of cosmopolitanism in Britain now - more European, less hung up on the old Empire - but Phillips has not been able to capture it.

Preoccupied by Empire and its backwash, Extravagant Strangers is filled with the disparities between the "motherland's" projection of itself to colonial subjects, and its reality on the autumnal streets of London. Sometimes the disenchantment leads to satire (Christopher Hope's skit on Heart of Darkness), sometimes to politicised opposition (Linton Kwesi Johnson's "Inglan is a Bitch") and sometimes to general alienation. And then there are the pieces by Kazuo Ishiguro and Timothy Mo, which hold the familiar and the strange in a delicate balance. By some Zen-like paradox, they make of disenchantment, the rub of reality, a new enchantment. In a collection which offers surprisingly little variety, it is this shifting register of tone that holds the greatest fascination.