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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. …