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City of Spades: a nudge at calypso

August 26, 2010

Colin MacInnes’s novel City of Spades features a couple of incidental encounters with a calypsonian in 1950s London. The fairly pompous narrator of this passage is Montgomery Pew, Assistant Welfare Officer of the Colonial Department — a well-meaning “Jumble” (John Bull), liberal by nature but uncertain about certain aspects of immigrant culture. Through Pew’s priggish reportage, MacInnes manages to include a decent parody of the calypso lyric, whilst caricaturing the lordly, dandyish tendencies of the calypsonian (though it should be noted that the singer in question is holding this interview in his unenviable living space, a prison-like hostel). Note also the little reference to the BBC – MacInnes had been employed as a radio script writer for the BBC and couldn’t resist a little jab here and there at the institution:

‘And the song,’ I asked. ‘Is it of your own composition?’

‘Yes, man. In my island I’m noted for my celebrated performance. It’s your pleasure to meet this evening no less a one than Mr Lord Alexander in person.’

And he held out a ring-encrusted hand with an immensely long, polished little-fingernail.

‘Perhaps, though,’ he went on, ‘as I’m seeking to make my way in this country, you could help me into radio or television or into some well-loaded night-spot?’

‘Alas!’ I told him, ‘I have no contacts in those glowing worlds.’

‘Then at least please speak well of me,’ he said, ‘and make my reputation known among your friends.’

‘Willingly. Though I have to tell you that I don’t care for the caypso…’

‘Man, that’s not possible!’ He stood up in his flowered pants aghast. ‘Surely all educated Englishmen like our scintillating music?’

‘Many, yes, but not I.’

‘Now, why?’

‘Your lines don’t scan, you accentuate the words incorrectly, and the thoughts you express are meagre and without wit.’

‘But our leg-inspiring rhythm?’

‘Oh, that you have, of course…’

‘Mr Gentleman, you disappoint me,’ he said. And taking a deep draught from the rum bottle, he strolled sadly to the window, leaned out, and sang into the opulent wastes of SWI:

This English gentleman he say to me
He do not appreciate calypso melody.
But I answer that calypso has supremacy
To the Light Programme music of the B.B.C.

I made my getaway.

If this book had a soundtrack, it would be provided by the first two London Is The Place For Me anthologies on Honest Jon’s records. The first of thes features the most celebrated calypsonians who arrived in London in the fifties (Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, Might Terror et al); the second reaches out to include be-bop/calypso hybrids and West African forms. MacInnes’s novel follows the misfortunes of the Nigerian Johnny Fortune and a group of Gambian antagonists, but the calypsos of the Trinidadian Lord Alexander provide a note of commentary just audible beneath the hubbub of a newly multi-racial London.

Commentary and documentary is the habit of the calypsonian – indeed, in MacInnes’s novel Lord Alexander’s reports on English society delight and convince more than the documentary radio feature on immigrant life idly planned (and never realised) by the bookish BBC employee Theodora.

Montgomery Pew runs into Alexander again later in the novel. By this time Pew has lost his job as Welfare Officer, and the Trinidadian is emerging from Portland Place, newly successful in a rose suit. Lord Alexander boasts:

All my songs is good, but especially enjoyed are those on British institutions: ‘Toad-in-hole and Guinness stout’, and ‘Please, Mr Attlee, don’t steal my majority’, and ‘Why do I thirst between three and five?’…”

What better excuse to enjoy the real life calypsonian Lord Kitchener in similarly documentary mode?

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