British landlords who put signs in windows in the 1950s and 60s warning “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” did West Indians a favour, galvanising them into buying their own homes and escaping the rat-infested hovels they were otherwise forced to rent. But there was a major impediment to home ownership: banks’ refusal to offer black people mortgages. This is the dilemma faced by the motley crew of friends led by Bat in Sam Selvon’s 1965 short novel The Housing Lark, a cast whose nicknames denote character: Poor-Me-One is self-pitying; Gallows’s explosive temper threatens the grave for his rival and “me for the gallows”. In their quest to buy a house between them, all must swear off buying fags and booze – a considerable sacrifice but as nothing compared to their preoccupation with pursuing women.
As typified by Fitz, a modest “professor of womanology”, who would nonetheless “beat [his lover] like a snake” if ever she was unfaithful, the language of these cocksure, mostly Trinidadians has not matured since their forerunners a decade earlier in The Lonely Londoners (1956), Trinidad-born Selvon’s seminal tale of Windrush generation adventurers. They’re still focused on female anatomy, eyeing up and chasing “a thing” or “a blue foot” (a white woman whose stocking-less legs highlight her blue veins).
While Selvon’s unnamed narrator gives an unmediated portrayal of their objectification of women, he’s more inclined to critique humorously the delusions of their overstated prowess. It’s all bravura, masking insecurity and feelings of nostalgia – “in truth loneliness does bust these fella arse”. Worse still, the anglicisation seen in a friend – “he even eating a currant bun and drinking a cup of tea for lunch!” – might soon apply to them. One of the many delights of the novel’s emphasis on this colony of romancers and dreamers, liming (hanging) around Brixton market, is their strategies for survival which include pretending to be from South America to circumvent local antipathy towards West Indians.
It’s not apparent how the womanising gamblers will manage to save and prosper: Bat is not an efficient or honourable banker; Gallows is permanently distracted with finding a £5 note last seen months ago; Poor-Me-One is selling “chargers” (weed) – providing a social service for the fellas more than income. The narrator only reserves judgments for signs of hypocrisy. Bat’s sister, Jean, may be a prostitute “looking for fares” down at Marble Arch, but asserts her moral integrity outside of work; something that her God-fearing friend Matilda can’t claim: “Like how a multiple-sinner would hold on to one virtue and extol its merits, so Matilda feel that if she didn’t whore the waters would wash her clean.”
The women, forgiving of each other, lambast the feckless men: “This is what you come to Brit’n to do?” Chastised, Bats and co pledge to do better – at least until the next poker game. The prose sings with a muscular West Indian vernacular, especially on a group day trip to Hampton Court. There Selvon’s perfectly pitched comic observations vividly capture the excited pleasure of remembrances of home while abroad. “Nobody care who listen or talk. Is as if a fire going, and everybody throwing in a piece of fuel.”
• The Housing Lark by Sam Selvon is published by Penguin Classics (£8.99). To order a copy for £8.36 go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15