My interest in City of Spades was initially inspired by a growing fascination with mod subculture. MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners is considered to be a classic evocation of the mod era, but CoS was the work that I managed to pick up secondhand, and also the first in the London Trilogy, of which AB is the second. And it was certainly absolutely worthwhile, particularly but not only if one has an interest in the Caribbean and African diasporas in London (for me, initially a function of a serious obsession with reggae, again tying us back to the ‘60s and the overlap between skinhead and mod culture – both characterised by a fascination with black music, in particular early ska, reggae & northern soul).
The text is experimental around the edges, using contemporary argot and some startling and original descriptive and metaphorical language, but the narrative is essentially straightforward – the misadventures of Johnny Fortune, a charismatic Nigerian in 1950s London. The first-person voice alternates between that of Fortune himself (an interesting technique which today might be more controversial, the emulation of a black voice by a white writer) and that of his increasingly exasperated friend Montgomery Pew, a white man caught between the slatternly iniquities of English racism, bureaucracy and the colonial mindset (some refrains of which, unfortunately, remains all too familiar), and the black world, in relation to which he feels desire, ambiguity and exclusion. The subjects with which the novel deals are deeply controversial (and must have been even more so at the time), including drug taking, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality (perhaps the ‘otherness’ least sympathetically dealt with, though nonetheless not completely viewed through the eyes of prejudice), and inter-racial sexual relationships.
In today’s milieu, some of the views expressed (though certainly appropriate to the characters) which seem to hold a certain amount of authorial sympathy would be considered problematic, but for the period this is an astonishingly nuanced representation of race and race relations, and, although I would be the last to decry political correctness in the way which is such a fashionable catch-all condemnation, there is a freshness to this writing which reflects an era in which these questions of representation were still in the embryonic phases of being picked over and examined. On the note of race and literature, Caryl Phillips has written an excellent and considered reflection on the absence of black characters in canonical 1950s London novels (a period when that society was changing deeply and indelibly as a result of black immigration), which deals in depth with CoS as an exception (which, incidentally, also mentions Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, a play I first came across as a foundational work for Morrissey). One aspect of the intercultural situation well-captured by the novel is the deep desire felt by the white characters for the black Other (particularly in relation to sexuality and authenticity), a desire which may form the only real basis of agency graspable by the black subject in order to speak back to the centre. This desire in itself may be an issue for the modern reader– an aspect explored by Phillips – one made particularly manifest, for this reader, in a growing frustration with the seeming inexhaustibility of Johnny’s allure, sexual and otherwise, in the face of his increasingly cruel and manipulative behaviour (though perhaps there is a touch of realism in this connection). However, apart from anything else, the underculture in which the novel immerses the reader, along with the beguiling kitchen-sink quality of the drama and the purposefully unresolved notes of intertwined hopelessness and hope which the novel sounds make not only for an immersive socio-historical document, but also a deeply vital and arresting read.