By Jonathan Ali
Escape to an Autumn Pavement, by Andrew Salkey
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1-8452-3098-2, 213 pp)
Andrew Salkey in Havana, 1968
When speaking of the writers who decamped from the Caribbean and headed to Britain in the 1950s — those halcyon days of West Indian literature that more and more feel anomalous, rather than precipitous — it is de rigueur to mention the late Andrew Salkey. Coming from Jamaica (but born in Panama), Salkey set up shop at the BBC’s Caribbean Service, a member of the boys’ club that included George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, Vidia Naipaul, and Sam Selvon. Salkey’s importance and influence in the Caribbean Service, and the Caribbean Voices programme in particular, are undeniable; according to Stuart Hall he was the “key figure” of the programme for a critical period in its history. Yet though he would go on to be a prolific writer in all the genres and win a number of awards, and in his later life became a professor of literature and creative writing at Hampshire College in Massachusetts (where he died in 1995), Salkey’s reputation appears to rest more on where he happened to find himself at a certain point in time, rather than what he wrote.
Unlike the best work of his contemporaries, none of Salkey’s novels can be said to occupy the upper reaches of the Caribbean canon. His other books — like his sadly overlooked 1972 travelogue Georgetown Journal — are virtually unknown. If anything, Salkey is probably best known (at least, by a certain generation of Caribbean readers, your writer included) for his children’s books, the hugely popular Hurricane (1964) among them. It would be a fool’s errand to try and work out the reasons for Salkey’s lack of stature vis à vis Lamming and company. But reading his compact 1960 novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement — recently republished by the very good people at Peepal Tree Press as part of their Caribbean Modern Classics series, with a warm introduction by Thomas Glave — I have no doubt as to why this particular book was never deemed worthy enough to stand alongside the likes of In the Castle of My Skin.
Set in London, Escape to an Autumn Pavement tells the story of a Caribbean immigrant of mixed race and middle-class background riven by his identity. That alone would be enough to make for a serious case against the book — the Tragic Mulatto has never been popular in Caribbean literature — but to crown things off, the character in question is also quite possibly gay.
His name is Johnnie Sobert, and mulatto though he may be, he certainly isn’t tragic. Born and raised in Jamaica, transplanted to London, Johnnie is a cynical and sardonic young man, a waiter in a Soho nightclub, struggling to pay the rent for his Hampstead bedsit every week. Salkey’s deliberately self-conscious prose with its staccato sentences is suitably tough and immediate, and at times acerbically funny:
Ought to rest for a while. Get ready for work in good time. Seven to ten, tonight. Thank God quickly for that! Still, might make a few tips. Help out with the Trado crisis. I’ll have to borrow a fiver. Off whom? Better touch the boss. Poor rich Sandra. Poor white Sandra with a West Indian-GI world in her own native Oxford Circus.
Already we’re in a different London from that of Selvon’s Moses Aleotta and Naipaul’s Ralph Singh. In fact, the London of Escape is much closer to the city that Salkey and his fellow scribes lived in by night — Salkey even worked in a nightclub in Piccadilly — the bohemian city to be found in British novelist Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades and Absolute Beginners. In this particular London, racial prejudice never seems to rear its head; it comes as something of a shock when a character in Escape picks up a National Front-type leaflet in the street decrying West Indian immigration and the spectre of miscegenation.
“Why are you so angry, Mr Sobert?” Johnnie’s landlady, who offers that he is different from — that is, better off than — the West Indians she sees working on the Underground, wishes to know. Johnnie’s angst stems from betrayal. Raised in a middle-class, Roman Catholic Jamaican world, Johnnie comes to the mother country to brutally discover the sham of his upbringing, its nullity, its meaninglessness outside of a very narrow island context. The result is a man who has decided to become his own island, an individual, indifferent to almost everyone and everything:
I’m basically selfish. Couldn’t-care-less hunter of rent money and bus fares kind I am, really. Not interested in the land, in agricultural improvement and development. Not conscious of nationalism and growth and pride and independence and wealth and the rest.
Those references to nationalism and independence help pin the novel in its period, and Escape adopts a suspicious, even pessimistic attitude when it comes to the prospect of freedom and federation for the West Indian colonies. As Jamaican Larry, Johnnie’s barber and a sort of cut-rate Tiresias, notes:
I feel that there’s something fishy about that politics that going on in the intellectual circles in Jamaica. Things look too selfish to me. Things look like they want to glorify one man instead of the dream nation that everybody dreaming about.
An astute observation, but one that sounds like something the writer, not the character, would say. This is the novel’s major problem. Too often the characters are merely mouthpieces for statements about politics and race and history, as when Johnnie tells an Englishwoman with whom he has a protracted conversation about these issues, “Surely it takes more than a hundred and twenty-eight years after the Abolition of Slavery for a middle class to evolve?”
But if the novel wears its political concerns a little too nakedly, it fares better when it comes to the personal. Johnnie begins a half-hearted affair with Fiona, an Englishwoman who lives in Johnnie’s boarding-house with her husband. And he strikes up a friendship with Dick, an Englishman who also lives in the boarding-house. Dick is gay, a fact that slowly dawns on Johnnie, who has no problem admitting to himself that he prefers Dick’s company to Fiona’s.
As the months pass — the novel begins in summer, and ends the same winter — Johnnie decides to move into a flat with Dick, in what he believes to be a completely platonic arrangement, and break things off with Fiona. “She doesn’t understand her defeat,” Johnnie thinks to himself. “She doesn’t understand Dick’s victory. Dick’s supremacy. Dick’s gift of freedom to me.” This freedom is linked to Johnnie’s desire to escape his past and the expectations placed upon him, the nets of race and class and nation.
In his introduction, Glave suggests that Johnnie’s “anger and restlessness . . . marks the sharpening of a Jamaican consciousness in conflict with the emergence of a Caribbean-British hybrid one.” Salkey here anticipates the postcolonial, even post-racial concerns of writers like Zadie Smith, whose characters often celebrate their hybridity, and for whom being black and being British are not mutually exclusive. Which is not to say that the novel ends on some naïve note of false optimism. When Dick and Fiona try to get Johnnie to admit to his homosexuality, he reacts against this, too. Dick eventually moves out, leaving Johnnie a touching letter. Larry, who has already noted with disapproval Johnnie’s separation from his fellow West Indians, tries to counsel him (“You’ve got to assume some sort of responsibility, boy. You got to bend a little way towards the thing called conventional society”), but Johnnie remains deliberately unmoored, unwilling to be rushed into any decision about who he must be or who he must be with.
Ultimately, Escape to an Autumn Pavement is not a great novel. It is, however, a courageous and even groundbreaking one.
Jonathan Ali is a freelance writer and the editorial director of the trinidad+tobago film festival.