McLeod, John. Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis. New York: Routledge, 2004. 194 pages. $45.95 paperback, $120.00 hardback
Postcolonial studies has always borne a close relationship to urban studies. Frantz Fanon’s 1961 analysis of the geography of the colonial city in The Wretched of the Earth marks a watershed moment in how postcolonial scholars understand the planning and utilization of colonial and postcolonial urban spaces. Since then, issues and theorizations of the city and metropolitan culture have occupied an important position in the larger field of postcolonial studies and theory.
As the citation of Frantz Fanon would suggest, much of the discourse surrounding these topics has circled around the planning of colonial cities like Algiers, Delhi, or Johannesburg, and how that planning has served to consolidate colonial strength while excluding native or indigenous people from seats and positions of power. A growing body of scholarship, however, is interested in how postcolonial migrations disrupt traditional understandings of the geography of cities in former metropolitan centers. Sociological and anthropological works such as Jane M. Jacobs’s Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City or John Eade’s Placing London: From Imperial Capital to Global City look at how imperial legacies have affected London, the former seat of imperial might, while literary productions like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth register imaginative new geographies of postcolonial, multiracial contemporary cities. Literary scholarship like John Clement Ball’s Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis and Peter J. Kalliney’s Cities of Affluence and Anger: A Literary Geography of Modern Englishness chart ways in which literary fictions like Smith’s can intersect with, confront, and change social realities such as those detailed by scholars like Jacobs or Eade. McLeod’s Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis inserts itself into these types of conversations by looking at how works of literature have imaginatively re-arranged the social and human geography of post-World War II London.
McLeod situates his work in this tradition by claiming that his “is a book about change: cultural, social, political, aesthetic” (4). He asks his readers to engage with visions of the city created by post-World War II migrants from formerly colonized nations and their descendents, and to consider how their writing about London might have “enabled new ways of thinking about regional, national, diasporic, and transcultural identities” (4). By taking as a given that “the urban and human geography of London has been irreversibly altered as a consequence of patterns of migration from countries with a history of colonialism [since the end of the Second World War]” (4), McLeod allows his readers to explore the ways in which literary production has imaginatively remapped cultural conceptions of London, and how the creative work of those considered by some to be outside the boundaries of “Englishness” or whiteness might present a form of resistance to racist or xenophobic narratives at work in society.
McLeod draws on the work of urban scholars like Michel de Certeau and Jane M. Jacobs to develop his theorization of the city and the uses of urban space, while relying on postcolonial scholars like Graham Huggan, Simon Gikandi, Stuart Hall, and Bill Ashcroft to situate his work in the postcolonial realm. His book is divided into five chapters, as well as an introduction and a coda. The first chapter (“Making a Song and Dance”), focusing on the work of Sam Selvon and Colin MacInnes, looks at how the works of these two authors present a new social vision of 1950s London, especially in their uses of West Indian song and dance. Close readings of V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, and Janet Frame follow in the second chapter (“London, England”), which explores how these writers, as adult migrants to London, struggle to reconcile their expectations of literary London and Englishness with the bombed-out, heavily immigrant, post-World War II reality. The third chapter (Living Room”) looks at how the fictions of Buchi Emecheta and Joan Riley, as well as the poetry of Grace Nichols, prefigure and go beyond the black feminist activism of the 1970s and 1980s. “Babylon’s Burning,” the fourth chapter, takes on Linton Kwesi Johnson, Hanif Kureishi, and Salman Rushdie’s treatments of fire and riots, and the final chapter, “Millennial Currents,” examines the optimism and “cheerful determination” (188) of late-twentieth century writers like David Dabydeen, Fred D’Aguiar, and Bernadine Evaristo (as well as Zadie Smith, though she does not receive subhead billing).
Throughout his work, McLeod’s main argument is that these selected pieces of literature provide new avenues to remap and recreate tired, old, potentially racist geographies of the former imperial center of London. While each set of authors is waging a different battle – Sam Selvon and Colin MacInnes do not have to write against the narratives of Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Power as Hanif Kureishi and his contemporaries do, for instance – McLeod is able to demonstrate how resistance to authoritarian narratives, whether those narratives are imposed by racist English politicians, ordinary English people, or other members of immigrant communities, is able to tie the works of these highly divergent writers together. In the end, no “postcolonial London” is created, but rather a series of postcolonial Londons, each one as different as the experience of each particular writer.
McLeod’s strongest section is his fourth chapter, on Linton Kwesi Johnson, Hanif Kureishi, and Salman Rushdie. Here, he was able to bring together strands of discourse like race, Thatcherism, Enoch Powell, riots, and the way each of these writers use the symbolism of fire in a highly synthesized and interesting way. McLeod is clearly very comfortable talking about politics and resistance, especially in the time period of the 1980s, and the links between the literary works and the remappings of the city were especially clear in this section. While the chapter mostly focuses on Johnson’s poetry, Kureishi’s film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, readers who are unfamiliar with any of these texts still should be able to follow his main points along, as the architecture of the chapter is quite clear and he provides plenty of historical and political markers. On the other hand, his chapter explicitly about women writers – Buchi Emecheta, Joan Riley, and Grace Nichols – reads as somewhat uninventive. It was certainly solid, but lacked the same punch as some of his analysis present in other chapters. The image with which he closes his book, of encouraging readers to encounter the future by taking a walk down a London street and melding urban realities with written words, seems like a provocative and enticing invitation by way of a conclusion.
Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis is, overall, an engaging and innovative entry in the field of postcolonial urban studies. Both its work in the area of literary geography and its close readings of well-selected texts make it well worth the reader’s time. Published in 2004, its insights still remain fresh enough to make this a valuable resource to postcolonial scholars, urban theorists, or anyone interested in either or both of these fields.