“Mum looked hard at the four walls of the room and the walls stared right back at her. She looked away and by the time she looked round again the walls had crept forwards, closing in on her. The walls mocked her. The house mocked her, as did the council estate. Less than a hundred yards away the constant drone of cars speeding on the M1 motorway sounded like jeering. Their occupants were on their way. She did not know where they were heading but they were most certainly not stuck in Luton” (139)
Colin Grant’s autobiographical novel Bageye At The Wheel is set in the bleak estate of Farley Hill in Luton, Bedfordshire. It tells the story of a black Jamaican family – or, rather, a feckless Jamaican husband (nicknamed Bageye) and exasperated Jamaican wife (called Blossom) and their England-born children – as they try to stay afloat in the racist world of 1970s suburbia. Think of Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners 20 years down the line, with kids in tow, featuring Jamaicans instead of Trinidadians and, it has to be said, not quite as many stylistic quirks. Ok…perhaps don’t think of Lonely Londoners at all…
The narrative unfolds through the eyes of one of Bageye’s sons, who looks on as Bageye gambles away the family’s savings and makes the family’s life a living hell with his dark moods and rules of behaviour designed to stifle everything Jamaican in favour of the pursuit of Englishness.
Bageye does everything to eradicate the family’s Jamaican roots: he “never like to draw attention to our colour” (47); he “reserved particular dislike” (66) for other Jamaican families; he “never uttered the name of any relatives” or, if he did they “came out as a kind of slur, as if the names stuck in his craw” (141) and he discourages any reference from Blossom to their previous life in Jamaica. His pride is almost insufferable for the rest of the family, especially when he grows furious with his children for reflecting Jamaican stereotypes in the sports they enjoy or the way they dress: “’Not one t’ing the Englishman expect of the black boy you gwan give him. You understan’? Not a t’ing’” (213).
However, Bageye’s pride and vengeance against English racism also requires his family to reject certain English ways of life: “Bwoy, you think the man gwan tell you? How you think the Englishman get where him is, get all that empire and t’ing? By let you in on the secret? No man, he must keep you where you is, ignorant, a-feed off the scrap from him table. You t’ink him gwan tell you anything but shit?…Englishman have you just where him want you” (93). Thanks to Bageye’s reign of domestic terror, the family is therefore unable to determine an identity for itself that is Jamaican or English. They are forced to live in uncertainty as to where they belong and in fear of Bageye’s next big gambling loss. Their life is one big, miserable unknown: “Bageye left behind a vacuum. It was filled with silence” (261).
The children long for peace away from the arguments and pressure to behave. They hide away in the bathroom for hours on end, they sit spellbound at in front of The Waltons, a typically English working class television family living “idyllic lives”, with “no luxuries but, equally, never suffered real privation” (62). They look longingly at the edge of town like “the edge of the world” for they have never “ventured further” (105).
It’s a bleak tale that started life as a short story. I think it probably should have stayed that way. Its characters (aside from Bageye) are underdeveloped, the narrative style is bland and unengaging – anecdotal rather than revolutionary – and the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. I wasn’t a fan of the ending; it felt ill-fitting, perfunctory. It’s a 2-starrer, out of 5.
Next week I’ll be reading Bleak Midwinter by Peter Millar for Oxfordshire. Read along with me!