A Study of Space in “Small Island” and “The Lonely Londoners”
As a human there are certain rights we believe we have. It is not uncommon for one group to believe themselves superior to another, or for each group to believe they have certain rights and the other group to disagree. This was the case when large numbers of non-Caucasian individuals migrated to England from the Caribbean believing that the mother country was going to welcome them and supply them with more opportunities than they had at home on the islands. Some of these individuals had even helped to fight with England in WWII and were now to the country they had fought for. Others who made the trip had family that had made the move to England before them and they were now coming to meet them, believing that the transition would be smooth and a place to call their own would be waiting for them since another had somewhat paved the way for their arrival. With all these new arrivals came anger and frustration among the prior residents of London. They felt threatened and thought that this group was intruding on their space. In both Small Island by Andrea Levy and The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon characters struggle to find the place in London where they will fit in, and spaces in which they will be welcomed and accepted. In this paper I will examine the importance of having a space to belong to, regardless of the colour of one’s skin, and will argue that while England may not have been ready to have a place for everyone upon arrival, those who made an effort could make space for themselves.
There was a clear power struggle in England between the whites who were already residing in London, and the newcomers who were making the voyage in search of better lives. This struggle is greatly represented in a quote by George Lamming, ‘…imagine waking up one morning and discovering a stranger asleep on the sofa of your living room? You wake this person up and ask them “what are you doing here?” and the person replies “I belong here” ‘. The white population, who had already been residing in England, felt that there was a whole group of uninvited people who were now showing up and intruding on their space. No one had bothered to ask they native Englishmen how they would feel about these strangers making a place for themselves in the city and therefore felt the strangers had no right to what had been theirs. Meanwhile, the non-white individuals who made the journey did not see themselves as strangers; this was the motherland. Rather, they saw themselves as welcomed to make a place for themselves and begin their lives anew. They were so sure they belonged on this sofa, which is a metaphor for England. Each group believing something different lead to raised tensions among them. Some of the native Englishmen saw the need to state their control over the strangers and the land they had come to make their own, making it clear that they did not belong in London. The native Englishmen wished to keep their space the same as it had been prior to the war and the mass movement of those of other ethnicities while the new arrivals were trying to make a place for themselves to live the life they had come to England in search for.
In the novel Small Island by Andrea Levy there are many examples to reinforce the idea behind Lamming’s quote. The idea is that some individuals arriving in the country believed that England had a space waiting for them and they would be accepted with open arms, to sofa was theirs to sleep on. This is the case with Hortense who travels from Jamaica to England after her husband had made the journey a couple of months before. Prior to her arrival, Hortense had an image of England in her mind which included a big house with a door bell and being greeted at the docks by her husband Gilbert. Upon disembarking the ship there was no sign of her husband welcoming her, and she soon realised life in England would not live up to her expectations After struggling to communicate with the taxi driver and upon finally finding the house, her place in England, the welcome she received was less than warm. When the door was opened to reveal Hortense standing there, Queenie the owner of the house, was ‘puzzled’ to see this women waiting outside with a large luggage. Queenie was the individual waking up to see a stranger, Hortense, sleeping on her sofa. Queenie was mystified at the women standing there with her luggage and stating that she belonged in the house. Once all the confusion was cleared up Queenie told Hortense, ‘I hope you are not bringing anything into the house that will smell’. Queenie was actually not trying to be rude though, she was welcoming Hortense into her house and helping her make her own place in London. But at the same time, she did not want to be inconvenienced in her own home by the smell of something from Hortense’s home. So even though Hortense was welcomed, and even belonged in this house, she should not expect to make it completely hers. There were regulations set in place by the white, native Englishwoman that Hortense was expected to obey.
While a large amount of native Englishmen represented in Small Island were not welcoming of the country’s new residents, others individuals were open and ready to welcome them and help them find their place like Queenie. Queenie opened up her home to rent out rooms to anyone who needed them including those of colour. Her relationship of those with colour offered them a safe space while in her presence and in the privacy of her house. Just because Queenie was accepting of coloured individuals did not mean others would tolerate it. Just by allowing coloured individuals to take up space in her house strained Queenie’s relationship with her neighbours who did not want their neighbourhood diminished. An example the conflict of having a space in private but not in public was when Gilbert accompanied Queenie to the movies. When he attempted to sit down next to Queenie in the theatre, the usherette stopped him and told Gilbert that he would have to sit in the back due to the colour of his skin. Gilbert was shocked at this example of segregation stating that, ‘This is England…This is not America…I will sit anywhere I please’ referring to the Jim Crow Laws in place in the States. Gilbert thought he knew England as a space with no segregation, especially after being welcomed by Queenie, a white Englishwoman. But the events at the cinema showed that segregation was very much alive in England. Even though Queenie had no issue with making a place for Gilbert in the seat next to her, the theatre had designated his place to be in the back, separated from the white crowd and the white GIs who were seated in the front. Gilbert was the individual stating that he belonged there, in the seat next to Queenie, while the rest of the cinema saw him as an intruder in their space. Not only were there no segregation laws in England, but Gilbert was also a GI who was fighting to help England in the war. None of this mattered in the eyes of native Brits though who were not willing to share their space with Gilbert’s type. They saw themselves as the rightful residents and therefor had the right to say they did not want to sit near an individual of colour. Both groups, the whites and the coloured, were fighting to define and protect their place in England at this time. While the newcomers were attempting to make a place for themselves that was next to, and equal to, the white population, the white natives were trying to keep their space separate and send a message saying that the colours were only visitors in their space. This struggle between the two groups was its own type of war being fought.
As previously stated, the biggest struggle over ‘place’ in Small Island was between those who had already been residing in England and those who had just arrived. Bernard, Queenie’s husband, had been someone who had already been residing in England and upon returning from war believed he knew what would be waiting for him back home. But when he returned to his house Bernard was in for quite a surprise. While he was gone Queenie had rented out rooms in the house to anyone in need of a place which included multiple residents of colour. When Bernard answered a knock at the door he was not prepared to come face to face with Gilbert who asked Bernard, ‘Who are you?’ to which Bernard replied, ‘ “Who are you?” is more the question’. This was Bernard’s house and being asked this by Guibert, a guest, made Bernard feel like the uninvited and unwanted stranger. This meant that Bernard now had to state his dominance over the house and make it clear that this place was his. However, Gilbert believed the house was his place in England since he had been living in it for months. Bernard was now the one intruding on a structure that had been built. The conflict came to a head when Bernard asked all the residents to leave the house. But the residents had made a place for themselves in the house, and felt that since Bernard had been absent for so long, he had no right to the place and no right to tell them to leave. Both Bernard and Gilbert believed they had a place of their own in the house, only to have that idea challenged upon meeting each other. It was once again a struggle between a white and a coloured. Who’s place was it really and how would they decide? There is no exact answer to this conflict. Both individuals did have a right to the space, but neither would have been satisfied with coming to that agreement, so they instead found themselves in a hostile, uncomfortable environment that was now their England.
While all new arrivals in England struggled at some point to find their place in the large city some were able to adjust better than others, like the characters in The Lonely Londoners. The characters in this novel each fought hard for a place and a space in the big city to call their own, and their dedication to this proved triumphant in the end. James Procter points out that in the opening of the novel, the narrator is on his way to pick up a new arrival in London and is describing the fog covering the city as ‘alienating territory’. This can be seen as how the newcomer will at first be experiencing London, as since he is new to the city he will not yet feel at home or know his way around. And as this is just the beginning of the book, readers are also newcomers to this narrator’s London. Procter then points out that the way in which London is described shifts as we see the city not as a newcomer, but as the narrator Moses. Procter states that, ‘This shift between alienation and belonging is most clearly articulated through the naming of the landscape’. Since Moses is not a stranger to the city and knows exactly where he is going and what he is doing, his descriptions are more detailed then the first description of London, and include the specific bus he rides and exactly where he is headed. These details cement the idea that Moses is not a newcomer and has mastered London in some way. Moses has found his place and become a Londoner and now he is attempting to help others to do the same. Procter emphasises how important the naming of locations in the novel is as it really represents the boys’ settlement in the city. When telling the newcomer that they are heading to where Moses lives, Moses refers to it himself as the Water but informs the new arrival, ‘Bayswater to you until you living in the city for at least two years,’. The slang is reserved for those who have worked for it, those who have successfully made a place for themselves in the city and those who the city has accepted.
It seems characters in Small Island had more trouble making a place for themselves in London than the characters in The Lonely Londoners. I feel this is because characters in Small Island did not fight as hard for their place in England and rather expected it to be there for them. An example of this is the character Hortense, instead of trying to make her own place she attempted to fit in. She thought that by making one change to herself she would be accepted by the city. Hortense thought that she would gain respect and more if she talked in her accent that had, ‘…taken [her] to the top of the class in Miss Stuart’s English pronunciation competition,’. She did not realise that a change in her dialect would do little towards acceptance by the native Enlgishmen if she could not change the colour of her skin. Unlike Hortense, characters like Tanty in The Lonely Londoners decided that rather than change their ways to fit in, they were going to fight to create their own unique spaces. One example of Tanty making her own place is when she introduces the use of credit to some of the shops in London. Tanty was unhappy when a shopkeeper in London did not accept credit as a way of payment like they would back home in the islands. Instead of adjusting her way of living and making a small change to fit in to the already set up structure, she worked to change her surrounding to suit her. Tanty did not give the shopkeeper much of a choice when she took control and told him to write down her name and amount she owed him and that she would be back on Friday to pay. After keeping her word and shocking the owner, the shopkeeper began accepting credit as a way to run his business with all his customers, entirely thanks to Tanty working to make herself comfortable. She made a space for herself because she did not have to change her ways, and at the same time she was accepted by the shopkeeper. Instead of trying to fit into the pre-set structure of London, Tanty acted in reasonable ways that demanded attention and admiration. She was respected and accepted by the city and those who knew her. She created a space for herself in London which was similar to her space back home and this made her feel comfortable, confident, and like she almost entirely belonged in London.
Even though she made her change on the shops in London, some things were to big and structured to change in a way suit her. This did not stop her from creating her space within them. Tanty felt she could not truly belong to the city until she mastered all its ways of transportation. While she was first uncomfortable by both the tube and the bus system, she gave both a try and felt triumphant after her successful journeys. Instead of expecting the city to accommodate her, she made the effort to respect what was already in place. So while it took effort and she couldn’t change the transport system to her liking, Tanty did not give up simply because it intimidated her or confused her. Instead, she accepted that using these forms of mass transportation was a part of being a Londoner, and she embraced them. Tanty fought to make her place in the city. Wether it was changing something to suit her, or changing herself for the city, she did not give up or accept defeat. She was determined to be comfortable in London and create her space in the city and she was rewarded.
One of the most important spaces for the characters in Lonely Londoners was a private space that Moses was unknowingly creating. It was his room, which he had originally created as a space for himself, but ended up being a space for the boys he had become acquainted with. While each boy individually made spaces for themselves throughout London, Moses’ room was a place they kept being drawn back to. Just like they each had originally been strangers to London, they were also originally strangers to each other. But through their time spent in London they worked to create a place for themselves in which they would feel comfortable and which they could call their own. Moses’ basement is one of those places. The basement becomes a small place in London for just them where they could talk about anything, especially of their times and experiences in London. Their settlement of London is especially represented in this room through the boys language and descriptions. As Procter mentions the way the boys refer to location around London truly represents their settlement in the city and here in this room the boys are using nicknames and shorthand terms to refer to a London which has accepted them and made a space for them to live. This being one of the final spaces and scenes mentioned in the book really exhibits the progress the boys each made since arriving in London. Each character was able to come a long way from Moses having to share his space when they were new in London, to them visiting his room as a meeting place, but being able to leave it and return to their own places and spaces in London.
It was clear that London was not ready to have a place to those who didn’t work for it, regardless of the colour of their skin. In both Small Island by Andrea Levy and The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon the characters must work to gain a place in the city rather than just expect it to be given to them. And while London was not kind to them all, making it seem for some impossible to find a space for themselves, those who worked hard and did not settle were rewarded in being able to call London their city and to have a place especially for them within it.
Lamming, George, ‘The Coldest Spring in Fifty Years’, Kunapipi 20: 1 (1998).
Levy, Andrea. Small Island (London: Headline Publishing Group, 2004), pp.14-16.
Procter, James ‘Dwelling Places: Postwar Black British Writing’ (Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 53.
Selvon, Sam. The Lonely Londoners (London: Penguin Books, 2006), p.16.
The aftermath of war in Bernard and Queenie’s conduct
The war had been an enormous bomb blast. Everything thrown up, tumbling, turning and scattering high in the air. Now it was over; the whole lot was coming back down to land. But it was all settling in different places.
– Andrea Levy, Small Island (London: Tinder Press, 2006) (page 497)
Small Island was written by Andrea Levy and published in 2004, with its plot set in 1948, when England is still very much in the process of recovering from the effects of the Second World War and being reconstructed. Events like the inauguration of the new health system (NHS) and the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship from Jamaica contributed to define the beginning of the post-war condition that changed British society. It is possible to link these events and many other transformations in England to the effects of war. Considering the aftermath of war and its period of crisis, I limit my analysis on the narrative structure and on Queenie and Bernard’s actions during this critical period.
The narrative contains a particular structure that reflects the matter of war. Instead of being constructed in a chronological order, the plot is separated in two ways. First, the narrative is divided in the voice of the four characters. Second, the plot is divided, after a short prologue, by the time. The plot moves back and forth in a flashback style, in which the nine main units of the novel are labelled by “1948” or “Before”, reaching back to 1924. In addition to this shift of time and perspective of the four characters, the reader is also taken to different setting places, across national borders and cultural instants, involving the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 at Wembley; London before and after the outbreak of World War II; Jamaica, England and United States through the Jamaican airmen; and Calcutta after Victory over Japan.
By exposing the reader to this analeptic narrative, Levy passes the sense of chaos provoked by war in the lives of the characters. The lack of specification of the previous time, named simply “Before”, ends by turning the past rather intangible and causes the opposite effect in the present of the plot. By emphasising this period, named “1948”, the narrative has its focus on the post-war time and consequences. The war time ends by becoming the only landmark of the characters, which somehow are either attached to the past or projecting their future (Hortense and Gilbert) and try to escape from the chaotic present. An example of this connection to the past is Bernard, whose Queenie tries to change the house when she moves in saying “[i]t could be a proper home again […][b]ut most things she suggested were met with Bernard’s shaking head” (217), so he refuses the alterations as his house is passed from generation to generation. Bernard’s presence in the story is limited to Queenie’s description of him in her narrative during the first half of the book, as if the narration tried to reproduce his taciturnity. Before his narration, all the other three characters narrate the plot in a way that moves constantly back and forward in time, in a random sequence. Nevertheless, the chapters concerning Bernard are grouped together in a sequence of ten chapters, which are all included in the time zone “Before”. Only the last three are spread like the others in the end of the novel in the “present” part of the plot, in 1948. This structure in the narrative may represent the idea that Bernard, who is traditional and resist changes, is stuck in the past. However, different from Queenie, war imposes new events to Bernard without asking his permission.
Bernard’s stable and even apathetic personality is disturbed by the events of war. Apart from Queenie, his father Arthur and the superficial talks with the neighbours, Bernard does not seem to have other relations. His statement saying that “[he]’d not wanted a war […], never wanted to be out in India. But ([he] admit[s]) it put a rod in the back and a spring in the step of this middle-aged bank clerk who’d thought his life was set” (289) epitomises his structured personality. The opening sentence of the second chapter that introduces his narrative is organised with rhymes and rhythm. The war took Bernard out from England and forced new elements in his life, making him live different experiences, he “even started whistling (nothing fancy) now [that he] was part of a team” and was proud of it. (ibid.)
Supporting this idea of Bernard’s social life being broadened by the happenings of war, during his time in India he gets very close to Maxi. Friendship and affection seem to be a novelty to Bernard, and their friendship is rather valued by him. So esteemed by him that in his description some erotic tension appears to occur between the two in the episode in the dark forest, as they heard a supposed teammate calling for help and realised it was a trap made by the Japanese men. Hidden from them, Maxi and Bernard move closer to share the only blanket they had:
Two vigilant heads swivelling, our bodies wrapped as one, sticking together where bare flesh pressed. […] Our guns were quickly erect, poking through the gap in the cloth, pointing different ways. […] His warm breath on my cheek, smelling of tobacco. Wafts of body odour were puffing from the blanket. Rough fibres scratching our cheeks. […] The muscles of Maxi arm pumped against me (tense again) His knee nervously rubbing mine. (294-5)
In the passage, their physical proximity is evident. It is followed by their plans of becoming partners in a rabbit farm in the countryside in England. Finally, Maxi dies in a supposed arson to the erks’ hut. In the end of the war in India, Bernard thinks he is infected by syphilis because of his intercourse with a prostitute there and, ashamed, he avoids coming back to Queenie. Perhaps as a way to cling to Maxi’s existence, he chose to go to Brighton, his friend’s city, and watches his children and wife, who “soon got used to seeing [him] sitting in the graveyard [and] would nod to him.” (351)
If the lines open space for considerations on Bernard’s sexuality and the flexibility of it, this is surprising for the reader who has been introduced to a very intransigent and bigoted Englishman. Another episode, some pages before the one with Maxi, seems to reinforce the idea of the discovery of this aspect of Bernard’s. In this passage, Bernard falls in a trench, crowded with men as Japanese planes fly over them. When the planes disappeared and they started to go out of the trench, “[he] lost [his] balance and slid back down. It was when [he] noticed an unmistakable bulge in the front of [his] shorts. [He] had an erection” (285), which is something at least curious in such a situation.
We are also shown the permanent consequences of war through Arthur, Bernard’s father, who returned from the First World War with shell shock — a disorder that has turned him mute. Bernard appears to internalise many of his father’s characteristics and suffer from the consequences of having lost the interaction with his “pa” (father), who is thus infantilised – he does not speak and is tended by his own son and wife. When Arthur came back from the First World War “he was never [his] pa again. […] He used to carry [Bernard] on his shoulders before” (331), to teach him how to play, etc. Arthur’s shellshock affects Bernard’s personality, as he seems to have absorbed this trait of Arthur. Queenie often complains about the parsimony of words of her husband, which can also be read in the plot as the representation of the British cold manner, compared to the Jamaican people.
Queenie learnt in school that an apostrophe existed to show something was missing and “that was how [she]’d always seen Bernard’s father, Arthur: a human apostrophe”, as he “never spoke. He shook his head, nodded, he grunted, he sighed, he even tutted. But no words came through his lips” (238). Bernard’s lack of reaction, silence, when Queenie reveals to him that she was pregnant and he was not the father illustrates the relation between Arthur, the mute father, and his son. Despite of the intense events, “[t]here are some words once spoken split the world in two. Before you say them and after” (412), and Bernard opts for not changing their couple situation:
He listened to me right through. Never saying a word. Never interrupting or wanting a clarification. Never tutted, shook his head. […] And for the first time I was thankful that Bernard Bligh could be relied upon to have absolutely nothing to say. (ibid.)
The war also brings to Queenie’s life situations in which she is able to develop her self-knowledge and put in practise her vivacity. Marrying Bernard enables her to run away from the countryside’s tediousness and move to his house in London. However, she may have found out that she had just moved from one sort of boredom to another. At the beginning of the war, the “raid was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in this house, [t]ingling with life… [she]was looking forward to this war” (220), which will shake her life. Moreover, due to her unbending husband’s absence, Queenie has good components for living huge transformations, first opening the house for tenants and then finally meeting Michael as one of them.
The reader can consider Queenie the one who unites the other three characters that narrate the story. She serves as a conflict softener between her husband and the other couple formed by Gilbert and Hortense, as well as an important person for their settling in England. Queenie can be considered the most enlightened character in Small Island, as she is one of the few British people depicted as accepting racial differences. She has an inquisitive mind (in the prologue regarding her teacher), is able to leave her family and the countryside (even though due to an unemotional marriage), she goes to work in the rest centre aiding casualties of war and even helps some of them giving them her furniture and a place to stay.
After Bernard’s departure to India, Queenie needed to get by on her own and conceded some rooms of the house to be rented. Michael was one of the people who stayed briefly at the place during his time passing through London. He is described earlier in the plot as being Hortense’s infatuation since her childhood. He got involved with Mrs Ryder, the married American teacher in the school in Jamaica, and Hortense saw both kissing, which broke her heart. The experienced Michael arrives in England and soon catches Queenie’s attention, having the features that Bernard lacks. Michael is adventurous, talks, tells her stories and makes her feel special, or at least desired, leading to their erotic encounter:
It wasn’t me. Mrs Queenie Bligh, she wasn’t even there. This woman was a beauty—he couldn’t get enough of her. He liked the downy softness of the blonde hairs on her legs. Her nipples were the pinkest he’d ever seen. Her throat—he just had to kiss her throat. This woman was as sexy as any starlet on a silver screen. (248)
Queenie and Bernard seem to have attitudes that were triggered by the war, revealing some aspects of their respective inherent traits, giving them opportunities to experience different sides of their personalities. Since Bernard does not return home when the war ended, Queenie lives life on her own terms. Free of the prejudices that people like Gilbert and Hortense face very often, Queenie is able to cultivate true friendships and stay rather immune from the judgments of her neighbours. Sometimes she appears to be tinged with the presumptions of those around her, but it is mostly because of her lack of knowledge and hesitation rather than a moulded prejudice. For example, she asks Hortense “[d]o you have pictures… films… where you come from?” (190), assuming the idea that they come from a non-civilised place, or maybe this is a sign that she just ignores the existence of the place, as other characters in the plot. She also ends by giving her baby to Gilbert and Hortense to bring up as theirs, which may be seen as a heartless act by some, even to Bernard.
Bernard is exposed to different “sort of people”, forced by war to leave his house and country for some years. Even if this is not enough to deeply change him, it is already positive, considering his level of intolerance. By suggesting bringing up the baby as theirs, Bernard ends being open to accepting the son of another man; and, more impressive, a black baby, which gives a positive feeling to the end Levy constructs, implying that even the most inflexible and coldest people are able transcend their stiffed views. Queenie and Bernard are examples of how the author depicts her characters in a human, multifaceted manner, not just defined as good or bad. This rich approach turns Small Island, into a novel that makes concepts such truth, identity and knowledge not simplistic. Through the critical events of war, the novel merges and problematizes subjects like the fictional and the historical, the past and the current, familiar and foreigner, good and evil, right and wrong.
Andrea Levy. Small Island. London: Headline, 2004