The Trinidadian author Sam Selvon is probably best known for his 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. I haven’t read that book, but I was interested to try The Housing Lark (1965), which has just been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic in the UK.
The Housing Lark begins with Trinidadian immigrant Battersby staring at the wall of his Brixton basement room, wishing for a better life:
The irony of it was that the wallpaper really had a design with lamps on it, Aladdin lamps all over the room. It may be that the company know they could only get dreamers to live in a dilapidated room like that, and they put up this wallpaper to keep the fires of hope burning.
Battersby is having trouble paying the rent, so he agrees to another tenant moving in, Jamaican musician Harry Banjo. It’s Harry who has the big idea: Battersby’s circle of friends should club together to put down a deposit on a house. That would change everything: as one character, Gallows, puts it, “if a man have a house he establish his right to live”.
Of course, it doesn’t work out as straightforwardly as that. There are some very funny episodes in the tale that unfolds, such as the character Nobby’s attempts to lose a puppy that he’s been given by his landlady. But Selvon shows a wide view of his characters’ experience in England at that time, from racism to a trip to Hampton Court, during which Battersby and friends reshape the history of the place for themselves:
“…suppose old Henry was still alive and he look out the window and see all these swarthy characters walking about in his gardens!”
This was my first Sam Selvon book, but it won’t be the last – I enjoyed it very much.