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LDN is the Place for Me: Sukhdev Sandhu

Andrew Stevens interviews Sukhdev Sandhu, author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City.

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SS: I was the proverbial bedsit boy, spending years as a penniless student shuffling between archives full of mouldering, dermatologically-hazardous old documents and rented rooms lined with miserabilist Penguin classics, half-finished manuscripts about lesbian poets cultivating tapeworms, and the back catalogues of record labels like Postcard, el, Sarah. It was a life without TV, and, more importantly, a life before the internet; a time when it could take you forever to hear that deleted Desperate Bicycles 7″ or to find out more information about the actors in that strange arthouse film you managed to catch at a late-night screening.

3:AM: In London Calling you write about hugely under-rated black authors like Sam Selvon, who has since enjoyed something of a revival, and Victor Headley. Were these among the books that lined your shelves then?

SS: It’s easy to forget, especially these days when the critical cliche is that everything ‘ethnic’ adds value to a product, that books by black or Asian British writers were uncommon until the early 1990s. Kureishi, Rushdie, Caryl Phillips, not that many more. The others were published by small or specialist presses and had limited circulations. I’d snap up everything I could, but, of course, this was a pre-Google era. There were no special sections in shops. Black History Month was something associated only with a few leftist councils.

So there wasn’t much of a sense of lineage. Most of the writers I look at in the book had been out of print for years or were word-of-mouth artists at best. Selvon was definitely one of the latter; everyone lucky enough to happen across The Lonely Londoners in a second-hand shop felt a sense of discovery. His writing, like that of the best London writers — Thomas Burke, HV Morton, Geoffrey Fletcher — is so bittersweet and unsentimental, so alive to beauty and to sadness, the product of years spent pounding the pavements of a particular neighbourhood. He knows about isolation and poverty, but he is able to convey the romance and sense of possibility that lures outsiders to London — and to the best cities everywhere. Capturing that sensibility and trying to locate a midpoint between abjection and ecstasy was really important when writing the book.

Headley was also very important. He was published by a tiny imprint called The X-Press. It was set up by Steve Pope and a former Voice journalist called Dotun Adebayo, brother of the novelist Diran. He’d grown up during the 1970s reading lots of New English Library paperbacks, especially Richard Allen’s Skinhead series. It gave him the idea of trying to create a new genre — black British pulp — that had the energy and street-aggro, not just of Allen’s books, but of ragga and jungle, and that would appeal to people who thought someone like Ben Okri was just puffed-up middle-brow fodder for broadsheet readers. Adebayo was a talented trickster-operator. An entrepreneur. He ghosted half the novels his company brought out, and he sold titles on the streets, outside clubs.

Headley’s Yardie did huge business. It also alerted the big chains to the possibility that, yes, actually, black people do read books. It changed their inventory policies forever. Headley’s success was important to me in that it reminded me that I shouldn’t just be focusing on classy big-hitters and theorists of diaspora, but that I should try to create a structure baggy and capacious enough to encompass different literary genres, modes and registers. It’s not that Yardie is ‘authentic’ or ‘4-real’ or anything like that, but the crooked way it tries to yoke together elements of The Harder They Come, The Godfather trilogy and Quadrophenia is really interesting and vital, and perhaps a pre-echo of the kinds of Asian gangster fictions that are starting to come out in this country.

3:AM: I’m glad you make the connection between Headley and Richard Allen as there’s a tendency to dismiss the latter as racist fodder these days, don’t you think? Even Headley can raise eyebrows, as was demonstrated by some of the reviews of London Calling, particularly Mike Phillips’.

SS: You’re right. And that’s strange, as historically there has been a strong and fascinating relationship between skins and black people in this country. You only have to read Marc Griffiths’s excellent Boss Sounds, a book-length discography of ‘skinhead-reggae’ tunes, to see that for a while, close to the end of the 1960s, skinheads were among the biggest fans of rudeboy reggae. All those great tunes — by Symarip, Claudette and the Corporation, Desmond Riley — have recently been collected by the Trojan label. Even later, as Richard Allen points out naughtily in the introduction to one of his books, what united skins and some black kids was their readiness to kick the shit out of Asians. Weirdly, an element of grime today sounds almost like a version of ‘black oi’.

When the word ‘racist’ is bandied about so freely and recklessly it closes off debate. It stops us from exploring the different and often contradictory elements of the work that’s being derided. A lot of the artists I look at — Hanif Kureishi in My Beautiful Laundrette, Yousuf Ali Khan in Skin Deep, Isaac Julien in Paradise Omeros — are fascinated and repelled by skins. There’s a dark, almost erotic attraction at play. A fantasy of taming the masters of our teenage imaginations. It’s not so dissimilar to the dynamic at play in Morrissey’s work. He was a big fan of Richard Allen too. The irony is that the very people he wanted to embrace repudiated him; he was waving around a Union Jack, playing before a skinhead backdrop, and still found himself being bottled and coined at the Madstock show at Finsbury Park in 1992!

Anyway, the broader point about including Headley in London Calling was that whether or not you like his books (and I quite do: they have a ruffness and vigour that’s bracing in small doses), they engage with London, and tell you a lot more about London, than many more worthy, ‘literary’ ones. But that’s always the way: pulp, horror, penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, rogue biographies — this is the secret archive of metropolitan art. The Borribles or James Herbert’s The Rats tell you more about London in the 1970s than anything by, say, Doris Lessing. Many of the people you’ve featured at 3:AMChina Mieville, Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair — know this too. London is a place of radical discontinuities — wealth and poverty, high and low art, heritage and Olympic Stadium-sized transformation. It lends itself to avant-pulpists — writers who straddle apparently contradictory styles and genres.

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3:AM: I’m also glad you’ve touched on this as Joe Hawkins was a product of Plaistow, a locale very much ignored by gentrification, both physically and culturally, yet which has now found itself adjacent to the whole grime thing and amid Olympics-led speculative development. But that was a specific manifestation of Black culture, where does East London Asian culture come into it?

SS: Asians are marginal to so much East London literature. There, but not there. Muttering, but inaudible. Psychogeographers and urban foot-warriors rarely have much to say about Asian ghosts. They’ll take a bit of Burke or Rohmer, incant a few murmured words about Fu Manchu and Limehouse, and leave it at that. Yet the Asian presence here goes back centuries. Lascars were jumping ship in sizeable numbers from the late-19th century onwards. And take a book like Geoffrey Fletcher’s Down Among The Meths Men, a terrific slum-picturesque about the tramps of Whitechapel. Every so often, he notices an Indian guy and his family passing by. But that’s all really. They’re hints, footnotes, blurry shadows waiting to be fleshed out.

Of course, now there’s lots of books about or partly about the Asian East End, although that attention usually doesn’t extend, unless current affairs dictates it so, to places like Waltham Forest or South Woodford. There are lots of useful comparisons to be made, useful because they winch us out of that self-pitying and myopic trap of ethnic exceptionalism, between what’s happening in the East End today and a century ago: new Alien Act legislation, the whole moral and demographic panic about unassimilable hordes pouring into the country, spreading TB and advocating radical insurgency. East London has always been a terror culture, but that terror is usually of a quotidian and endogamous sort, the violence and damage that poverty and stunted social options help to make inevitable.

There have been a few East London books — Manzu Islam’s Burrow, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Farrukh Dhondy’s East End At Your Feet; there’s Claire Alexander’s sociological The Asian Gang; and there are more laddist, wide-boy fictions around — Londonstani, of course (though that’s about Hounslow) and Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal’s Tourist. The book I like best is Tony White’s Foxy-T. Ventriloquism among the Cannon Street xeroxing machines, innit? Certainly there’s room for a Brit-Islamic version of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

In the absence of that particular book, there’s just — absence. British Asian music isn’t producing any great MCs or rhyme-spitters at the moment. Maybe the really good stuff is on blogs or on list-servs. I’ve not seen it yet. And in any case, I guess I’m moving away from neophilia. London’s full of grandstanders and bloviators shouting out for and trying to broker the new new (ethnic) commodity. Everything’s got to be the latest, freshest, most insurgent subcultural phenomenon. It’s a perverse corollary of the obsession with rebranding the city as Olympics-friendly, Gwyneth Paltrow-friendly, Wall Street hedge-fund manager-friendly. New and clean and buff! Mostly, London’s anything but; it’s old and shambling and crooked. And it’s those older people, migrants or otherwise, who are today’s blacked out, censored material.

3:AM: In your LRB piece on Brick Lane a few years back, you write about “Younger Bangladeshis… [in] their council flats.” Why do you think it’s taken outsiders to script “the surface of life in Whitechapel”, such as Tony White with Foxy T and, of course, Monica Ali with Brick Lane? John Barker in this piece for Mute contends that Iain Sinclair has sought to be the last word on East London, like some form of “literary estate agent”, do you agree and do you think that plays a part in this? Similarly, Sam Selvon’s the Lonely Londoners figures quite centrally in London Calling and since then he’s witnessed a small revival, championed by Zadie Smith. But why is black London writing now so dependent on well-heeled voices? Where is the fiction of bus conductors?

SS: I think Barker’s piece is terrific (and kudos to the always excellent Mute for publishing it), but there’s no way I could ever harsh on Sinclair to the extent he does. He’s a beacon of integrity, living and working in the area for the best party of forty years, putting in the leg – as well as – dreamwork, championing unknowns and underknowns. Even now, people overestimate how well known or successful he is outside of a relatively small metro-hipster crowd. He certainly doesn’t spend his days flinging wads of tenners in the air and drooling over huge advance-cheques. In fact, he spends a lot of his time helping out younger writers and artists, staying alert and interested, on the snout for new intrigues and wormholes. He’s no “literary estate agent” or locale-profiteer. He’s not a gatekeeper; rather, he’s spurred on lots of people, some of them producers of derivative, sub-Sinclairian work that has the side-effect of tarring his image, to dig deep below the discursive topsoil of East London.

One effect of his work, and it’s true that there hasn’t been much of a new-migrant element to it (does there have to be? He’s a poet as much as he’s a cultural anthropologist), is to alert readers to the silences and gaps within it: his books stimulate and create a market for books about the ‘other’ East End — the Bangladeshi/ Somali/ Turkish/ Congolese/ Lithuanian East Ends. Why haven’t lots of authors filled those silences and niches? Partly, because of the stories are being written up, however fracturedly, on listserves, in email form, on Live Journal. Partly, because it always takes a while for ethnic groups to produce half-decent fictions (how long had Jewish people been coming to England before Israel Zangwill wrote Children of the Ghetto?). And partly it’s a matter of class: how many books by working-class people, regardless of their colour, get published in any given year?

The bus conductors, just like the garage mechanics, just like the security guards, are going to adult-lit classes, penning short stories, beavering away. Maybe one day they’ll produce something magic. In the meantime, the prole narratives are to be found in unlikely places: Cass Pennant’s anecdotes about slicing and dicing rival football fans.

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3:AM: You mentioned Hanif Kureishi and Caryl Phillips, two of the most ‘European’ writers we’ve ever produced. Do you see that European-ness and London connect in any way?

SS: Well, London is more transparently a European city than it’s ever been before. The new migrants are as likely to be from Poland and Bulgaria, yet alone French bank-clerks, as they are from the old empire. This is a fascinating development: champions of open borders often used to base their arguments on the idea of historical redress; that is, white people once traipsed across the pink nations of the world, so, in a postcolonial era, the citizens of those countries should have the right to settle freely in the UK. That line of thinking doesn’t work in relation to Eastern Europe. New ideas are needed — especially if they’re to win over the xenophobes, many of whom are second- and third-generation Brits, the children of Asian and Afro-Caribbean migrants who are now keen to slam the door behind them. Listen to the talk-radio shows; they’re full of the same crazy bile that was flung at us in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

EasyJet and RyanAir mean that more and more black and Asian people are exploring Europe. They no longer think that holidays mean returning to their parents’ villages and home towns. An unwillingness to put up with bullying customs-surveillance at airports means that more of them are willing to explore non-North American options. The posh ones work for European banks and law companies, and spend their working lives ricocheting between four- and five-star hotels. They’re also travelling as clubbers and party-goers to places like Ibiza and Ayia Napa; check out Wayne Anthony’s Spanish Highs: Sex, Drugs and Excess In Ibiza.

It’s interesting that someone like Steve McQueen chooses to live in Amsterdam rather than in London, or that the novelist and ex-Long Fin Killie and Bows lead singer Luke Sutherland has been living in Barcelona. Maybe they’re the modern-day equivalent of the black American jazzbos who found freedom in Paris and Stockholm in the 1960s.

More and more European countries, for good or for bad, look to Britain as an example of good multicultural practice. They’re dealing with the same flows and arrivals, the same grapplings, that the UK has been doing for decades. They look at our pop charts, at Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru, at the theoretical writings of Paul Gilroy and Kodwo Eshun and Kobena Mercer and Tariq Modood — and what they see are creative and critical achievements borne out of this country’s pretty decent record of inter-racial conviviality. We should never be complacent, but, in the scheme of things, and when you look at all the anti-African pogroms in Moscow, the turn to the Right in Holland, the systematic ghettoization of non-whites in suburban Paris, Britain doesn’t seem such a wretched place. That, of course, is one of the reasons so many migrants and asylum-seekers head here: it’s not just for money, but for a more sophisticated public discourse when it comes to race.

3:AM: What brought about the Night Haunts collaboration with Scanner? What were you trying to achieve there?

SS: Night Haunts developed out of a series of conversations I’d had with James Lingwood and Cathy Haynes at Artangel over the course of a couple of years. A lot of their work — I’m thinking about projects by Jeremy Deller, Rachel Whiteread, Francis Alys, Gregor Schneider — is about the poetics of space, public memory, revenant urbanism. London Calling, over and above the ethno-specific stories it told about black and Asian migration to the capital, dealt with those issues too.

I was keen to go noctambulating. To revive the 19th-century tradition of studying London at night. To see whether its post-midnight geographies — its aching silences and brooding emptiness — were psychic correctives to the congestion and data overload of diurnal London. But I didn’t have much of a thesis or even an agenda; just curiosity and a desire to move beyond archive-based research. I guess I may have had a negative agenda: I knew I wasn’t interested in ‘night life’ or the buzzing 24/7-capital that city boosters are always raving about. That’s already over-chronicled by style and listings magazines and all the cable-TV ‘yoof’ programmes.

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I was hoping to uncover different, more scuffed textures, slower rhythms, doughtier individuals. Night Haunts is, in its small way, a kind of salvage operation, trying to spotlight and honour the people who create the city’s infrastructure and make all the fun possible: the sewer workers, street cleaners, avian police, Thames bargers, Samaritans. They are its invisible engine. I’ve talked to lots of young people during my wanderings, but they’re all from abroad; they never go to the kinds of eateries or pleasure zones they clean or to which they transport diners.

The project, in its web incarnation, has been a collaboration — between me, designer Ian Budden and soundscaper Robin Rimbaud. But it’s also a sort of a collaboration with its subjects — be they navvies or exorcists or graffers or the avian police. I don’t see it as a flaneurial project; I’m less interested in my own willfully isolated and isolationist ruminations as I am in having dialogues with night citizens, conversations in which they talk about beauty, ghosts, transcendence. It’s their metaphors and metro-optics that deserve to be gleaned and shared.

Their ethical critiques of the city are fascinating too. Many night workers are migrants, coming from everywhere — Ukraine to Togo, Fujian province to Rio, are busy watching and listening to the ‘overground’/ ‘mainstream’ city. They act as an informal radar system, an unobserved CCTV network: almost without exception they can’t believe how hedonistic London has become, how drunk and lairy the city’s young women are becoming, how amnesiac and Godless a place it is. By contrast, they brim with resourcefulness, spiritual strength, a passion for family, a lack of cynicism. They believe that progress is possible in Britain. They think there is a narrative of emancipation they can live out. They believe in graft, a better tomorrow, personal and communal uplift. It’s been wonderful spending time with them.

3:AM: OK. What’s next from you?

SS: Hmm, well, Night Haunts will be published in book form by Verso this September. Robin Rimbaud and I will be creating a musical and very possibly sculptural version of it in Stockholm next spring. There’s talk of a new, expanded edition of London Calling coming out in the States next year. I’ve also been working with photographer Bridget Smith on a book about clubs in London — women freemasons, beekeepers, Swedenborgians, all sorts. I also have a project about sewing machines I’m half-way through. Jobs that don’t exist, but that I’d like to do if they did, include being responsible for reissuing the back catalogues of Band of Holy Joy, the author Geoffrey Fletcher, and the radio documentarian Piers Plowright.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Sukhdev Sandhu‘s essay on Saudi Arabia appeared in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup last year. ‘Critic of the Year’ at the British Press Awards in 2005, he has written for the London Review of Books, Smoke, New York, Bidoun, New Statesman, Modern Painters, etc. He is also the author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined A City and I’ll Get My Coat.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 9th, 2007.