Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis

By John McLeod | Go to book overview

4

Babylon's burning

Linton Kwesi Johnson, Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie

In the winter of 1987, the Jamaican-born novelist Ferdinand Dennis made several visits to Brixton as part of his journey around 'Afro-Britain'. He described the Brixton neighbourhood as a 'Jamaica Abroad', an ebullient and dynamic neighbourhood epitomized by the 'highly charged atmosphere' (1988:188) of Brixton market on a Saturday morning. 'Even some of the street names suggest energy', he wrote: 'Electric Avenue, Cold-harbour Lane' (188). Yet the exuberance of 1980s Brixton could not mask reminders of more sober and bleak times. Opposite Lambeth Town Hall stood the Tate Library, named after 'the sugar company which for centuries ran sugar plantations in the Caribbean' (188) and was implicated in Caribbean slavery. On taking a walk along Railton Road, known locally as the 'frontline' (198), Dennis surveyed the 'numerous shabby shop-fronts' (197) and recalled the days when '[t]he road used to fork, and in the triangle formed were buildings which had become a market for ganga' (197). Although the Frontline had recently changed, it was hard to forget recent events in which Brixton had been brought to the attention of the nation.

Further along Railton Road Dennis discovered a mural which captured and connected the pain of Atlantic slavery with the events of London's recent past:

Titled 'The Dream, the Rumour and the Poet's Song', it was painted by two artists, South African born Gavin Jantes and Dominican Tom Joseph. It is a sort of homage to events in Brixton and the Brixton-based, Jamaican-born poet Linton Kwesi Johnson - note the Ghanaian day name. The mural tells a story. It starts with pictures of people migrating, followed by pictures of children caught in a terrible fire. It ends with the poet reading his works under a spotlight. The migration is easy to understand. The children and the fire less so. It is based on an incident which became known as the New Cross Massacre. In January '81, thirteen young Afro-Britons died in a fire

-126-

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Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Making a Song and Dance 24
  • 2 - London, England 59
  • 3 - Living Room 93
  • 4 - Babylon's Burning 126
  • 5 - Millennial Currents 158
  • Coda 189
  • Bibliography 195
  • Index 205
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