London Calling, Sukhdev Sandhu

Previous anthologies have written black and Asian writers out of London's literary history. So David Dabydeen is delighted with a volume that shows the capital in its true colours
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The Independent Culture

In 1993, A N Wilson edited the Faber Book of London which, like literary anthologies before, contained not a single passage from a black or Asian writer. Historians, anthropologists and linguists routinely write about London as a mishmash of cultures and ethnicities, or as a sprawl of languages and accents, each century shuffling in newcomers - Romans, Saxons, Huguenots, Jews, Ugandan Asians, West Indians. All the more strange, then, that the voices of blacks and Asians could be so rarely heard in canonical compilations.

Sukhdev Sandhu's book sets out to remedy such omissions. Like the city itself, London Calling is a monumental work, the first account of descriptions of London penned by black and Asian writers from the 18th century onwards. Although at core a serious literary study, it revels in unearthing whores, pornographers, playboys, beggars, boxers, circus performers: the common people who in the 18th and 19th centuries gathered in swarthy pools of misery and vice in areas like St Giles and Drury Lane and whom the British government first tried to "repatriate" to Sierra Leone in 1787.

Not all belonged to the Georgian and Victorian underworld. A few mingled with the highest: writers like Ignatius Sancho, friend of Gainsborough, Garrick and Sterne, who ran a grocery in Charles Street, Westminster (ironically, now the exact location of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). He sold slave-produced goods like tobacco and sugar but spent most time engaging in erudite conversations with writers and artists. Sancho's beginnings were inauspicious: born aboard a slave-ship, his mother dying soon and his father preferring suicide to plantation labour.

Sancho, however, turned out to be massively generous of spirit, which is why his Letters (1782) was an instant bestseller. The book offered rare black perspectives on London life, often comic and self-parodying: in one letter he describes the distressing scenes of a street riot, saying that even a negro savage would be appalled at the goings-on. His more famous black contemporary was Olaudah Equiano, who published his autobiography in 1789, but Sancho's personality is the more compelling. Sandhu's excitement over Sancho is evident in his descriptions of the African's gambling, boozing and womanising.

Such characters give wonderful colour to this study, which focuses on zany and quixotic authors. In the 19th century, for instance, Robert Wedderburn - "a vulgarian of the highest order" who loved earthy and excretory language - published in 1824 a shocking account of The Horrors of Slavery. He also edited two magazines which contained material of a startling sexual nature. Wedderburn was the son of a Scottish plantation-holder and a Jamaican slave mother (the father got rid of her when she was five months pregnant, selling her to another plantation). He ended up in St Giles living among the destitute - lascars, Irish immigrants, fugitives - and became involved with the Spenceans: radical politicians who believed in the expropriation of land and "the rights of all peoples to freedom of movement, association and trade".

Wedderburn opened a chapel in 1819 to preach revolution but was soon dragged from his pulpit to prison for two years on charges of blasphemy. The novelty of Spenceanism wore off and Wedderburn reverted to a more ancient profession, opening a brothel in Featherbed Lane. In 1830, he was sentenced to two years' hard labour at Newgate. After that, this most colourful of characters fades from history. The point is that he left publications which Sandhu resurrects, and valorises.

This is the virtue of London Calling, a careful literary excavation which unearths wonderfully surprising authors. In the 20th century, Sandhu glosses over the bleak, dull, self-consciously literary works of writers nurtured in academies, "which are not usually mirthful places", dwelling on the fresh and abundant talent of such as Sam Selvon. Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (1956) is one of the great novels on migration. Bittersweet comedy, memorable characters and linguistic innovation make Selvon "one of the greatest postwar writers of any colour". And that's the point made by this brilliant book. The writers start off being black or Asian, and end up being Londoners. Hence the magnificent paean to the romance of London which is Selvon's short story, "My Girl and the City": a work which completely denies the dark, self-indulgent, nihilistic image of the city as wasteland from that immigrant writer of an earlier age, T S Eliot.

David Dabydeen's novel 'A Harlot's Progress' is published by Vintage