WeeklyWorker

21.02.2019
Ear for voices

Explorations of inequality

Andrea Levy: March 7 1956 - February 14 2019

Andrea Levy, who died of cancer on St Valentine’s Day, was the chronicler of British-Caribbean diversity. This meant that not only did her novels explore difference, but differences within groups, including class and ideology. Her stories were not binary accounts of people in Britain and the colonies; nor were they simple celebrations of ‘community’ or ‘multiculturalism’. She was a realist, comic and incisive.

Her parents came to Britain from Jamaica and her ancestry included Jewish and Scottish. Born in 1956, she lived and attended school in Highbury in London. She studied textile design at Middlesex Polytechnic and went on to work as a costume fitter at the BBC - despite being told that actors do not like ‘being touched by black people’. While there, she first found herself confronted with choosing between her ‘black’ and ‘white’ side. Her novels are the answer to that question in the mixtures and divisions of post-1945 British society.

She took a creative writing course, but had problems getting her works published. In contrast to the attitude taken to US authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, publishers seemed to think there was limited market appeal for black British writers.

If the novel form is “polyphonic” (ie, many-voiced), as Mikhail Bakhtin said, Levy had an ear for voices that was acute. She would go on to write about ancestors, but she began by writing fiction about her own life. In Every light in the house burnin’ (1994), she details the situation of a black family on a London housing estate in the 1960s; while Fruit of the lemon (1999) is a self-narrated tale of a young Afro-Caribbean Londoner and her many and varied relationships, including a visit to Jamaica.

Some time ago I presented a portion of the latter text to some writing students and they were rapt. Though all of them were white, it was obvious that it spoke to their young experience.

In the excerpt, Faith Jackson and her brother, Carl, go to buy a second-hand car in an area where the houses “looked like they were made of cream-coloured icing sugar”. They find the house they are looking for and there is a car outside. Carl decides to have a look before they go in and Faith waits for him. Her narration continues:

… a man called down from the window of the house opposite. “Excuse me, what are you doing round that car?”

I looked up at the man and smiled: “We’ve just come to look at it - it’s for sale.”

While I was speaking, Carl kept his head pressed firmly on the car window and hissed at me, “Don’t tell him - nosy bastard. Let him mind his own business.”

“Do you know the person whose car it is?” the man continued.

“We’re just going inside,” I said, and then I whispered, “Come on, Carl, let’s go and ring the bell.” Carl moved on to the back of the car and began looking at the exhaust pipe.

“Come on, Carl,” I pleaded.

“Does the person who owns the car know what you are doing?” the man called.

“Tell him to mind his own business, nosy git,” Carl said from the ground.

“Let’s go now - come on. It might not even be this car.”

“Excuse me, miss … Miss … I asked you a question.”

Carl deliberately began to take his time.

There may be more poetic or dramatic passages and even funnier ones about such an encounter, but I doubt if they would be any more precise. Levy wryly pinpoints behaviour with an eye for the tensions and gestures associated with status and class.

By the way, later when the visitors do meet the car’s owner inside the house, Carl proves himself a charming negotiator, who achieves a discount on the stated price. No stereotypes here about street-corner guys flying off the handle.

Next Levy went to the past; in fact to that great subject for, it seems, nearly every UK novelist - the 1940s, the war and after. In Small island (2004), set during 1948, each chapter is narrated by one of the four principal characters, all connected to one other. Two are new Caribbean arrivals, the married Gilbert and Shortens, while the other couple are their landlady, Queenie, and her husband, Bernard. Again the voices tell you most of what you need to know about this corner of Britain. On meeting Hortense, Queenie assures her: “I’m not like most. It doesn’t worry me to be seen out with darkies.”

As this is a chapter from Hortense’s point of view, we get her unspoken reaction:

Now, why should this woman worry to be seen in the street with me? After all, I was a teacher and she was only a woman whose living was obtained from the letting of rooms. If anyone should be shy it should be I. And what is a darkie?

The book won the Orange Prize for women’s fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year. In 2009 there was a BBC TV adaptation that turned out to be less brave than the book: Hortense was made a hero of aspiration, a role model - mostly clued-up already and reacting well to people who nudged her off the pavement and prevented her fulfilling her career. While she appeared heroic, the viewer lost much of what Levy had to show about the Britain of 1948.

Levy in her turn has been criticised by other black authors for not being ‘representative’ or ‘feminist’ enough. Yet she was never afraid of covering the differences of attitude between black characters, and their differing strategies in the face of racist and class discrimination. She covers ‘shadism’ too: the differences within black communities, where skin tone is often equated with status - the lighter, the posher.

In The long song (2010), which proved to be her last novel, Levy goes all the way back to a particular moment in the British empire - the transition between the slavery and post-slavery eras in Jamaica. This is not just a story about racialism, but the limitations placed on emancipation by a landowner’s ‘need’ to extract rent and the economic coercion of a plantation, which the workers cannot afford to leave. They soon respond though - emancipated enough now to strike.

The principal character, a house servant called Miss July, finds herself having to disown the name her mother gave her and is involved in attractions to servant and master alike. The book won the 2011 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and was listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is an affecting narrative that is also a necessary contribution to a fuller sense of British history. It too was adapted by the BBC and was shown in December 2018, with Tamara Lawrance as July, Hayley Atwell as her initial owner and Lenny Henry (at first unrecognisable) in an acting tour de force as Godfrey, head of the house slaves. (The three episodes are still available on bbc.iPlayer.)

Andrea Levy developed her art from autobiographical questions of identity to an epic about differences and tensions within the capitalist empire of a sugar plantation. How many further explorations of character and inequality have we lost thorough her passing?

Mike Belbin