Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 275pp. £14.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Bageye at the Wheel, By Colin Grant
Friday 30 March 2012
Back in the early 1970s, Luton's population is mainly white and working-class, with a handful of Afro-Caribbean families. Among them are the Grants and, in the person of the eponymous Bageye, they have a formidable paterfamilias. Bageye takes his meals alone in Victorian fashion, eating before his wife and five pickney. The pickney try to make themselves invisible, because they go in perpetual fear of their father.
He works in the town's Vauxhall factory but aspires for more. The difficulty is that, however disciplinarian at home, he's incorrigibly feckless outside. His wife Blossom is reduced to hiding 50 pences for the electricity meter under the stair carpet to stop her husband gambling them away. Bageye lurches from scam to scam. Betting on the horses, dope-dealing – whatever it is, it goes wrong.
A fine example of his ongoing struggle between the grind of duty and illicit temptation comes during an outing to purchase tiles for the living-room ceiling. He attempts manfully to resist the lure of the bookmakers en route, but it's a dead cert he'll fail.
Bageye's spars are part of his problem and, in particular, their addiction to poker. The gang have blunt nicknames: Summerwear came to England in tropical clothing and eschews warmer attire; Tidy Boots is fond of leisure footwear; Anxious is constantly nervous, while Bageye himself – naturally – has drooping bags under his eyes.
Grant demonstrates a flair for narrative craft by limiting himself to a short period of his childhood which captures its most dramatic developments. In his youth he looked for clues to his father's moods, trying to deduce what was going on behind his impassive features. The advent of his own middle-age, as well the distance travelled socially – these days he's a radio producer – lend insight as well as the dispassion necessary to extract humour from his upbringing. Many of his recollections are stark, frequently they are also very funny. Bageye hasn't got a licence, but this does not deter him from driving. There's a miraculous escape from a couple of buses; later comes a resolute attempt to propel his Mini Estate without a gear stick.
Large quantities of dialogue are in patois, a rich treat for pale ears. In fact, a lot of the book's appeal comes from Grant's insider perspective on the Afro-Caribbean experience in the UK. This is a culture that remains fascinating to outsiders. In theory, Grant's account could lay some of that misplaced appeal to rest. Black Britons of his parents' generation and their offspring often cling to resolutely conservative values. From his family's perspective, Bageye's grass-smoking is suspect, his irresponsibility reprehensible, and his domestic violence simply vile. And yet, undoubted rogue that he is, throughout it all he manages to retain an elusive cool.
Grant's memoir is the latest in a long series of accounts of immigration from the West Indies: the classic remains Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, back in 1956. As for Grant's addition to this genre, I must jettison any claims to cool by confessing that I loved every word of it.
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