The Housing Lark, by Sam Selvon, is a short humorous [sic] novella about a group of Trinidadians and Jamaicans living in London in the 1960s. They’ve come over to London as part of the Windrush generation – some looking for employment, others for adventure (or, in one instance, on account of getting drunk and passing out on a Britain-bound boat). Fed up of cramped accommodation, rogue landlords, and the instability that comes with at-will evictions, they club together with the intention of buying a house in London. Getting an affordable property in the capital has always been a bit of a challenge – but in the 60s, West Indians in London were playing on a higher difficulty level than white British inhabitants of the capital. (Though I have to say that the deposit they are quoted for a seven bedroom house with multiple reception rooms in Notting Hill is £95 – which according to the internet translates to £1939 in contemporary money – so forgive me if I’m not that sympathetic about 1960s house prices).
I’m immensely glad that I got the audiobook, as the novel is told in Trinidadian vernacular and I think I would have struggled to follow it on the page. There’s a third person narrator who feels like a character in himself, and the combination of the audio and the narrative voice together makes this feel like a series of anecdotes told in the pub. It’s never clear whether he’s one of the men in on the housing lark, or someone in the wider circle, but it feels like a man telling you a series of stories about some ridiculous things his friends got up to. As the novel progresses, he explores one character at a time, describing an incident or two to give the idea of the man’s character and personality. I am about to complain at length about this novella, so before I get to that, I should say that I loved the storytelling itself. The main plot is linear, but the narrative doubles back a few times to explain how the men came to be in London, or what they’re like, and I liked the combination of the two very much.
Overall, though, I really struggled with this book. It feels like I’ve had a sense of humour failure, because so many other people seem to love it, but I just couldn’t get past the sexism. This being the 1960s, women are casually objectified throughout – the term that gets used as a generalisation for women is “things”, though some lucky ladies are occasionally called “a hefty piece of arse” or “a bit of skin” instead. Going out on the pull is called “getting a thing”. Very tasteful. Probably I would have just thought “ah, the 60s. I am glad we’ve moved on”, except that the objectification was coupled with something much nastier. There is one whole chapter – which, in a short book, is a high percentage of the total – which is basically a drawn-out joke about domestic violence. It starts off with one character, Fitz, “a professor of womanology”, joking that his girlfriend never brought up marriage again after he whacked her really hard: he likes to think that he’s knocked all memory of the concept clean out of her head. He sincerely advocates that the other men hit their girls if they step out of line. The joke, of course, is that at the end of the chapter Fitz has married after all and found himself under the thumb of his henpecking wife, doing housework and raising two kids. I did not find this to be a sufficiently funny punchline to justify what preceded it.
There’s also a lot of trying to wrestle girls out of their clothes if they are religious and say “no”, on the grounds that eventually they’ll start enjoying themselves and give in – and that runs through more than one chapter. In a particularly alarming scene, a young woman is brought to a flat one of the men rents – and another of the men does almost whatever he can, including threats of physical violence, to get her to sleep with him. The joke on this occasion is that he’s desperate to lose his virginity and will do whatever it takes. She makes it clear – out loud and repeatedly – that she does not want to sleep with him, but of course that just makes it funnier! At one point he leaves her alone in this room, full of strange drunk men, so that he can go and get a hotel room for her so she’ll be obliged to sleep with him (having first deliberately made her miss her last train). It’s definitely meant to be amusing, but to me at least it reads like the start of a horror story. I’m not so sure this one is a case of values dissonance, either. It’s difficult to believe that your average woman in the 60s would be thinking “rape threats, isn’t this jolly? What larks!”
The other stuff I just didn’t find funny, though I think I was meant to. The men are usually drunk and are generally unkind to each other. The scheme ringleader is consistently dishonest; one of the men plants drugs on another to avoid jail time; they all lie and cheat throughout; one man agrees to adopt a puppy to keep his landlady sweet, but plans to kill or abandon it. I’m really surprised to see people saying that this is a great novel about friendship with loveable characters. I prefer my friends, at a minimum, not to frame me for crimes. Am I being too picky? At one point, the scheme leader, Bat, charters a coach to take a whole load of people to Hampton Court Palace for the day to raise money. A coach with every seat filled plus lots of people standing is probably around eighty people, but they don’t call ahead to let the staff know there’s a big group on route. By the time they get there, they are drunk, high, and covered in food stains because they’ve been eating stew on the coach. They shout to each other from room to room and stumble blindly through the maze making a mess of it. And yet the narrator acts like the attendant is unreasonable for asking them to e.g. stop littering in the grounds. Maybe this was ironic and I missed it? Maybe the whole novella is ironic and I missed it.
Anyway, that’s how the book goes. The plot is basically “man does irresponsible and/or criminal thing, experiences consequences, whines, drinks heavily, says something appalling to or about a woman”. The final section of the book is a lot stronger for two reasons. Firstly, one of the women gets all the men into a room, confiscates their rum, and yells at them for being wasters and scoundrels who make things worse for all West Indians in London. Aren’t things hard enough in this country for us, she asks, without you confirming all the worst stereotypes these Englishers believe? It was gratifying to see them being dressed down so thoroughly. The other is that there is a slightly shift in the tone of the humour, and it becomes less sexist, so it’s easier to laugh at the other jokes.
Everyone else who has read this loves it, so clearly I am just prim and boring – but I really did not enjoy it at all. By the end I was devoutly hoping they would fail in their endeavours and that their poor beleagured wives and girlfriends would run off, leaving the men to fend ineffectively for themselves. I did enjoy the ending, which bumped this from a one-star to a two-star read for me, but still. I don’t think I’ll be picking up more or Selvon’s work in a hurry. Never has a 4.5 hour audiobook taken me so very many weeks to finish! I still want to read more Windrush generation authors – I’m planning to try Andrew Salkey next, as his Escape to an Autumn Pavement sounds excellent. Any other recommendations?
Why are they eating stew in a coach??? But you’re not the only one who prefers their friends NOT to frame them for crimes and I think the sexism would get to me too. Even if it is simply indicative of changing values over time, that doesn’t mean we have to read and enjoy it.
I don’t know why they were eating stew on the coach! I mean, maybe it wasn’t stew, but it was clearly something hot and liquid and I extrapolated. Either way, something ill-advised to eat in a moving vehicle.
Yes – I agree about the sexism. I do try to make allowances for the time, which probably could have carried me through the objectification, but the darker stuff around domestic violence and assault being presented as funny was a step too far for me.
“I prefer my friends, at a minimum, not to frame me for crimes. Am I being too picky?” – Haha, no, that seems quite reasonable to me! This sounds dreadful! I’ve only come across him once, in an anthology about London fogs, and that was a lovely piece of writing so I thought I might read him one day, but no, I couldn’t tolerate that kind of treatment of women whatever era it was set in. Things, indeed! Ugh!
I tried to give “things” a pass for as long as I could because it was clearly part of the vernacular, and goodness knows there are plenty of offensive terms for women in British English – but when it was coupled with all the rest it was too much!
I usually point out all the sexism and annoying gender jokes in books and movies, but the typical response is that I’m overthinking it or uptight. For me, the problem is not people today forgiving that behavior then, but suggesting that there is fun behind it that we just can’t get away with today. Ugh.