The Housing Lark: Sam Selvon’s strikingly relevant, lesser-known classic

Greenhorns, hustlers and dope dealers banter and bicker in this 1960s novel following migrants in London as they navigate racist landlords and English snootiness

The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon’s classic 1956 novel about West Indian migrants making their way in the old metropolis, ended on a blue note. Its chief character Moses found himself at the banks of the Thames brooding about things. Chasing skirt, having laughs, rum and revelry to fight off the frigid winters: was this living? It certainly wasn’t enough. He fears “a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country”, and that he and his friends are just “spades jostling in the crowd, bewildered, hopeless”. Perhaps, he wonders, his friends’ joie de vivre has been a lie. “As if the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they fraid to cry.”

By the start of The Housing Lark, published nine years later, life hasn’t changed much. Battersby (aka Bat) lies in a damp Brixton basement thinking about the good life and how far out of reach it appears. He’d like the warmth of a nice woman. Unlimited dumplings and pigtail soup. Most of all, he’d like not to have to worry about rent. His friend Gallows believes that “if a man have a home he establish his right to live”. Bat wants to feel less temporary, to be elevated to at least street-level citizenship. He and his pals cook up a scheme to pool their money and save up for a place, even if it’s in Croydon, they can call their own.

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The Housing Lark: Sam Selvon’s strikingly relevant, lesser-known classic