My granddad liked a drink and a sing-song, and most of family stories about him have him indulging in one or the other or (more usually) both. Once, after a day on the ale during the Second World War – he’d fought in the First and was too old to be called up for the sequel – he caught a tram home. It just so happened that on the tram there were US army soldiers, white GIs sitting at the front, black GIs sitting at the back, with the locals bridging the gap in the middle. My granddad – so the story goes – took one look at the GIs, shouted ‘what’s the matter with you lot? You’re all on the same side aren’t you?’ Then he tottered up and down centre aisle, leading everyone in a chorus of Little Dolly Daydream or some such, and wouldn’t stop until all the soldiers, white and black, were singing together.
I’d all but forgotten this story until Small Island took me to a cinema in war-torn London. “Rows of black GIs at the back. Rows of white GIs at the front. And a rump of civilians in their dowdy clothes sitting guileless in the middle.”
This is “Before”, during WWII. Jamaican Gilbert Joseph has rushed to the defence of “Mother Country” England and joined the RAF. While training in England he makes friends with Queenie and her father-in-law, Arthur. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, like Gilbert, has volunteered for the RAF, but is stationed in India.
Skip forward to 1948. Gilbert and his new wife, Hortense, have moved to England with dreams of a better life and are lodged with Queenie, who is renting out rooms to make ends meet; Bernard hasn’t arrived home from the war – yet.
I seem to be in something of a post-WWII groove, having just read Day, set in 1949. Day was an unread holiday read and Small Island (which in 2004 won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award – the predecessor to the Costa – and also the Orange Prize for Fiction) happened to catch my eye at a book fair the day before I broke my shoulder, so the fact I ended up reading the two back to back owes more to serendipity than genre planning.
It’s fair to say that the reality of life in the post-war small island of Britain doesn’t match up to the pre-conceived ideal of the small islanders from Jamaica. We see an England where casual, day to day race prejudice is normal, acceptable, considered a mark of civilisation even. Queenie’s next door neighbour insists ‘they’ are coming for “the teeth and glasses…that National Health Service”; and at work Gilbert is told: “There’s decent Englishmen that should be doing your job.” You mean NHS tourists and job-stealing migrants? Is it really 65 years since the period of the narrative? We don’t seem to have moved on much.
Or perhaps we have: at least now (I would like to believe) no-one can call someone a ‘coon’ – or similar – publically with impunity…John Terry, Luis Suarez, Ron Atkinson…
So racism is bad. Well, no shit, Sherlock. If that’s all Small Island has to say it would be a lesser book. The genius of it – and I don’t use the ‘g’ word lightly – is its even-handedness. Gilbert, Hortense, Queenie, Bernard, they all have their turn as narrators. And through their narrations they reveal themselves, warts and all. They are all four of them selfish and weak, and loving and strong. People, in other words, complicated people, not caricature sinners and saints; lower than angels, for sure, but certainly not devils.
I loved this book. It was humorous, outrageous, touching…did I already say even-handed? If it wasn’t for the “Michael Roberts” coincidence – I hate co-incidences – I’d say it was one of the books I’d ever read.
**** (one of the best books I’ve read this year)