Magazine article The Spectator

Down and out in London and Louisiana

Magazine article The Spectator

Down and out in London and Louisiana

Article excerpt

Vauxhall by Gabriel Gbadamosi Telegram, £12.99, pp. 320, ISBN 9781846591464 Sketcher by Roland Watson-Grant Alma Books, £12.99, pp. 279, ISBN 9781846882425 At the grubbier end of my street in north London is the Somali mosque that was burned down earlier this month in an arson attack. The other day I asked at the police cordon if any arrests had been made. 'Not that we know of', said the duty officer. A smell of charred wood hangs over this dreary, out-at-elbow part of Muswell Hill.

People complain that Somalis are heavily 'welfare-dependent', and have no wish to integrate into British society. It is true that immigrants today, with the internet, cheap flights and satellite television, are more likely to see themselves as members of a foreign country, hosted by, but not emotionally attached to, Britain. Diversity is here to stay, however, and many of us like it that way.

Jamaican pepper sauce, bottles of Polish beer and Indian spices are all on sale at my corner shop.

Gabriel Gbadamosi, a writer of IrishNigerian descent, is well placed to chronicle the vagaries of our mixed-up, multi-racial London. Vauxhall, his debut novel, is set in SW1 districts south of the river. I knew Gbadamosi slightly at Cambridge in the 1980s, but was unaware of his background. His father, I now learn, had Yoruba tribal scarrings (16 of them) on his face; inevitably family life in Vauxhall was affected by anti-black slights.

Gbadamosi, one of six brothers and sisters, lived by the river amid some hardship.

Vauxhall is an affecting work, that shines a light on the multi-shaded, multi-ethnic London we have come to know. The novel, narrated by an Irish-Nigerian schoolboy named Michael, unfolds during the trying if now far away (for Gbadamosi) late 1960s and early 1970s. Through a series of vignettes, Michael tells us of the alcoholics he sees daily under the railway bridge by Vauxhall Tavern, and the police who delight in arresting truanting black schoolchildren.

The sights, sounds and smells of south London are communicated through childhood's innocent gaze. Racism is perceived as simply a fact of life. 'We haven't let you into this country to beg', a white man reprimands Michael's older brother Connor, before Connor biffs him hard. Violence between black and white is otherwise rare: the aggressors, once stood up to, turn on their heels, and Connor is prepared to fight back. …

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