Cover Image: The Housing Lark

The Housing Lark

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

An absorbing look at the lives of immigrants in England the60s.When they buy a house together and share their daily lives we are drawn into their world,A book that is characters warm and hilarious,.So glad this was reissued, ,highly recommend.#netgalley #the housinglark
Was this review helpful?
London house prices are notoriously expensive. Many young professionals today have little hope of getting onto the property ladder without outside assistance. So it's fascinating to read Sam Selvon's novel set in the 1960s about of group of working class individuals of Caribbean descent who are fed up with their cramped, crumbling rented rooms in Brixton and hatch an ambitious plan to pool their money together and buy a house of their own. It's a good idea but this particular group of men struggle to concentrate and cooperate given their propensity for drinking, smoking and chasing women (or “birds” as they're often called in the novel.) They also often fail to support each other at crucial moments such as when one group member lands in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Selvon dramatises this tension well while creating a story that is so funny and witty that I felt totally engrossed by his characters' rambunctious conversations and farcical excursions. It's an invaluable portrait of a community in London at this time which was previously under-represented in fiction and it's no wonder that the writer Caryl Phillips commented “Selvon's meticulously observed narratives of displaced Londoners' lives created a template for how to write about migrant, and postmigrant, London for countless writers who have followed in his wake, including Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith.” 

Selvon poignantly observes divisions within the community where people from certain Caribbean islands receive preferential treatment over others. The black rent collector is viewed as a traitor to his community. Also, it's somewhat shocking to read about the way this group of men refer to women in their casual conversation. Battersby dreams of women who can be physically changed to suit his mood by twisting their breasts. When they go after a woman they refer to her as “a thing” and a character named Fitz claims “I beat she like a snake. All woman want is blows to keep them quiet.” However, this blatant misogyny is undermined by certain scenes such as a sexist man who is quickly domesticated or conversations between women in the community who are facing their own struggles. And, crucially, it's the women around the men who come together to get things in order towards the end of the novel. The men in the group also make fun of each other for their clumsy attitudes towards women such as a character named Sly whose foolhardy method of trying to seduce white women is to chase after them calling “Cur-rey? How would you like a good Indian cur-rey?” because he assumes this is the food English women like best.

There are multiple scenes in the novel which are so funny and also give social commentary on British society in a style which reminded me of Evelyn Waugh's “Vile Bodies” or “Scoop”. One hilarious highlight in the novel is a trip to Hampton Court that was conceived as a moneymaking scheme for the group. The chaotic nature of their trip and the way the men reimagine the historic location as it was in the times of Henry VIII is uproariously funny. However, the humour is punctuated by serious observations. It's noted of a West Indian named Charlie Victor that “in fact he fooling himself that he just like any English citizen, loneliness busting his arse every day.” And when their trip comes to an end the tone changes sharply as the bus driver coldly states: “They should put the lot of you on a banana boat and ship you back to Jamaica.”

One of my favourite characters from the novel is a man named Gallows who lost a five pound note a long time ago and spends much of his time walking through the city with his head down searching for it. This sort of dogged but ultimately fruitless attitude pervades the tone of the book which makes these characters very endearing in how it presents their strengths as well as their faults. “The Housing Lark” is a brilliant comic story of London life like none I've read before and it's also humbling to daydream of a time when someone could buy a house in London for £20-£30K!
Was this review helpful?
Thank you so much for releasing more Sam Selvon to the world. A funny and touching book about immigrants making a life in London with all the rough edges in the right places.
Was this review helpful?
An absolutely beautiful and stunning read, honest, sincere and raw truth but filled with great humour , the author deals with the experiences of homesickness, loneliness, racism, intolerance, the immigration experience in London in the 60s when this was written (although since it was written not much has changed) This is the first book I have read by Sam Selvon but I will definitely be seeking out the authors other work, as other readers suggest this isn’t even his best work. The writing style I thought was wonderful, the descriptions so good and it just pulls you into Battersy’s experience completely. Highly recommended (especially if you read Zadie Smith you will enjoy this too)

Thanks to netgalley and the publisher for a free copy for an honest opinion
Was this review helpful?
Painfully sincere and incredibly hilarious; Selvon's "The Housing Lark" depicts in a uniquely fascinating way the immigration experience of the 1960s.
Was this review helpful?
The Trinidadian author Sam Selvon is probably best known for his 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. I haven't read that book yet, but I was interested to try The Housing Lark (1965), which has just been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic in the UK. ⁣
The Housing Lark begins with Trinidadian immigrant Battersby staring at the wall of his Brixton basement room, wishing for a better life. ⁣
"The irony of it was that the wallpaper really had a design with lamps on it, Aladdin lamps all over the room. It may be that the company know they could only get dreamers to live in a dilapidated room like that, and they put up this wallpaper to keep the fires of hope burning."⁣
Battersby is having trouble paying the rent, so he agrees to another tenant moving in, Jamaican musician Harry Banjo. It's Harry who has the big idea: Battersby's circle of friends should club together to put down a deposit on a house. That would change everything: as one character, Gallows, puts it, "if a man have a house he establish his right to live". ⁣
Of course, it doesn't work out as straightforwardly as that. There are some very funny episodes in the tale that unfolds, such as the character Nobby's attempts to divest himself of a puppy that he's been given by his landlady. But Selvon shows a wide view of his characters' experience in England at that time, from racism to a trip to Hampton Court, during which Battersby and friends reshape the history of the place for themselves:⁣
"...suppose old Henry was still alive and he look out the window and see all these swarthy characters walking about in his gardens!"⁣
This was my first Sam Selvon book, but it won't be the last – I enjoyed it very much.⁣
Was this review helpful?
Originally published in 1965 and set in 1960's London, The Housing Lark follows a group of West Indian friends who, when when faced with the common racism of the time, decide to club together to make a dream of buying their own house a reality.
With delightful comic touches we follow the story of Battersby, Gallows and Poor amongst many others as they strive to achieve their dream. 
But will their love for women, gambling and rum ruin their plans?
Wish on your Genies lamp, down a glass of rum and enjoy.
Was this review helpful?
The Housing Lark is definitely a lark as it’s full of humorous episodes and laugh out loud character studies of Battersby’s house mates and friends. However, behind the humour, what the book does so well is to shed light on more serious issues: whether that’s the Anglo-centric nature of the history syllabus, the overt raciscm faced by immigrants or the lack of access to decent housing.

For example, although it has the serious issue of discrimination at its heart, one of my favourite stories concerns Sylvester. In order to find a room to rent, he is forced to convince the landlord he is from India rather than from Trinidad (the former being more acceptable seemingly than the latter.) He succeeds but has to keep up the part despite knowing little about India. Entering Sylvester’s room one day to find him standing on his head, the landlord asks what he is doing. Sylvester replies, “I am practising my yoghourt”. There are many more episodes of that kind.

One of Battersby’s moneymaking schemes to help raise the deposit for a house is to organise a coach excursion. The destination chosen is “Hamdon Court” and much hilarity ensues from the very start. “And the food and drink – well, it look like they setting off for an expedition to the North Pole or something.” When they finally get going, “like if fete start up right away. Fellars begin beating bottle and spoon and singing calypso…three bottles of rum start to make rounds…a woman open up a pot of pilau and start dishing out food.”

On arrival at their destination, most of the men choose not to tour the palace, opting instead for the delights of the rum bottle and showing off their (supposed) knowledge of history. All English history, of course.
“Nights of the round table and Richard with the lion heart and them fellars“, offers one. “Don’t forget Robin Hood and the Merry Men. And what about the fellar who was watching a spider and make the cakes burn?“, says another.

The book challenges the notion that people from the Caribbean region are a homogenous group. “To introduce you to all these characters would take you into different worlds, don’t mind all of them is the same colour.” It would be nice to think we can all deny the following accusation: “All you interested in is that he black – to English people, every black man look the same. And to tell you he come from Trinidad and not Jamaica – them two places a thousand miles apart – won’t matter to you, because to Englishers the West Indies is the West Indies, and if a man say he come from Tobago or St. Lucia or Grenada, you none the wiser.” As someone who has been lucky enough to visit several Caribbean islands over the years, I confess I was initially guilty of some of this thinking, imagining that the people from one island would frequently “pop over” to a neighbouring one. Of course, as I learned, they all have entirely different cultures, histories and, in some cases, languages.

The book demonstrates that, just as the British struggle to understand some of the immigrants’ customs, the newcomers are equally confused by what they find. For example, Battersby is perplexed by the UK’s changeable weather, so different from his homeland of Trinidad. “Funny thing in this country, you could never tell what sort of day waiting to pounce on you.” He also finds it hard to comprehend the British fixation with trying to forecast the weather. For instance, he marvels that on the television “they have this big map spread out, and a fellar come with a stick like a school master” who seems to have the power to determine the weather by moving symbols to different places.

I confess I struggled a little with some of the male characters’ attitude to women, especially the use of what seemed to me demeaning terms for them and a fixation with making sexual conquests. However, I’ll freely admit that this may be my own cultural prejudices and all the author is doing is faithfully recording the attitudes of the period.

The female characters come across as far more sensible than their male counterparts. For example, Battersby’s sister, Jean, does her best to keep him on the straight and narrow and ensure he looks respectable. This also extends to contributing to his rent, even though that means she has to work as, what she euphemistically describes, a kind of receptionist, explaining “I have to entertain the customers, and make sure they satisfy“.

As Battersby eventually realises, the idea of buying a house might be a lark to some of them but to women like Teena, struggling to bring up a family in cramped accommodation, it’s anything but. As she says, “Shame, shame and sorrows, is what scalliwags and scoundrels like the set of you bring on the heads of. Everything is a skylark and a fete and a bacchanal.” The omniscient narrator seems to agree. “You say this whole plan to buy a house was doom to turn old mask from the very beginning. Look at all these dreamers, and imagine that characters like these could get serious.”

In a recent online article recommending books about the Windrush generation, including Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Sara Collins (author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton) writes, “Selvon said that he was the first Caribbean writer to employ dialect in a full-length novel for narrative and dialogue. The result is musical, addictive, unparalleled prose.” I think you can see the evidence of this from the quotes I’ve included – the rhythmic speech, the colloquialisms and use of dialect. At one point the word ‘buttards’ is used and the narrator notes, “That’s a good word, but you won’t find it in the dictionary…. It ain’t have no word in the English language to mean that, so make it up.”

The Housing Lark is a fascinating insight into the experiences of immigrants to Britain in the 1960s. It’s also a huge amount of fun. My thanks to Matt Hutchinson at Penguin for my advance review copy via NetGalley.
Was this review helpful?
If you enjoy the narrative of Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi, you'll love this book too. 

Interesting and funny story about Jamaicans and Trinidadians in London in mid 1960-s who decide to buy a house. And then the story begins. Their scheme is very chaotic and one of them tries to scam his colleges. There si also an issue of racism and all the problems and challenges of migrants in Great Britain.

Optimistic and enthusiastic novel. Real classic.
Was this review helpful?
Prior to The Housing Lark (1965) I had only read one other book by Sam Selvon, and that was the wonderful The Lonely Londoners (1956) which is a really interesting, enjoyable and important book. Despite being rooted in the 1950s it contains universal truths for all people who seek a new life in a new and alien place.

The Housing Lark takes place in the mid-1960s and, once again, contains a motley band of disparate characters. Ten years after the homesickness which characterised The Lonely Londoners this group are more streetwise and aspire to escape the tyranny of unscrupulous landlords by buying their own property. Sadly, their leader Battersby (aka Bat) sees this as an opportunity to scam his friends and pocket a bit of extra spending money.

Needless to say The Housing Lark is another exuberant read from Sam Selvon and one which captures the 1960s West Indian immigrant experience in London in all its warts-and-all glory.

The excursion to Hampton Court is worth the price of admission alone, as is the denouement when it is the women who take control of the chaotic scheme to buy a property.

Another splendid Sam Selvon read. The sooner all his work is back in print the better.
Was this review helpful?
'So really speaking, if it have fellars who seem to be breezing through life without a care, you have to say good luck to them, If a fellar could afford to laugh, skiff-skiff at something what making you cry, how you could blame him?' 

This summarises the philosophy of this novel beautifully as Selvon follows the lives of a group of recent Caribbean immigrants to London in, I presume, the 1950s. The characters take centre stage as the charming but rascally Bat comes up with a lark for them to club together to put down a deposit on a house thus activating the dreams of his sister and their friends. 

Selvon breezes through the story not avoiding issues of racism, of Harry Banjo being falsely arrested by the police and thrown into prison, and the distinctively masculinised view of the young narrator and most of the characters who throw a lustful male gaze over the women, slangily known as 'things'... 

All the same, this is vibrant and comic, astute on 1950s immigrant life, on the cultural differences between, say, Trinidadians and Jamaicans who all get lumped together by Britons, and full of irreverent wit. Hugely enjoyable with a tender eye on flawed characters and their relentless optimism and enthusiasm.
Was this review helpful?
This had the same interesting and well thought out ideas that The Lonely Londoners had. The story wasn't as interesting as the previous one but i liked this for the most part. I liked how it looked at the Caribbean experience after they settled in London. I think this should be pushed as much as the Lonely Londoners are.
Was this review helpful?
This is a very short book that was written in the 60's. The premise is a group of people renting a house looking to buy their own house. This is a really good book and the money making schemes are often witty especially the description of  the Hampton Court trip and gives a good description of the matriarchal place in the home and out of it. The descriptions of the food often left me wanting to try or revisit some of the food I encountered in my youth. Though the racism of the time is not on every page it does "bubble away" underneath as a subtext almost of the day to day lives.
A great read that reminds us of a time in Britain that shows what life was like in 60's Brixton.
Was this review helpful?
Trinidad born Samuel Selvon came to Britain in 1950, and with his 1956 novel ‘The Lonely Londoners’ certainly made a name for himself, with that novel still quite popular.  He of course wrote other books, including this one which was first published in 1965.  Using creolized English as with his previous popular novel so we get the musicality and lyricism of the language as we find ourselves in Sixties Brixton.  Once again, we find ourselves amongst the working classes of the West Indian immigrants, and for Battersby from Trinidad so he is told that he will have to share his basement room with a new immigrant, Harry who is from Jamaica.  As the two get to know each other, after Bat (Battersby) has already conned him with the rent, so a plan is hatched, one that involves a group of them buying a house of their own together.  This is thus the main plot of the novel.

As we see Harry has dreams of making it big with his calypso music although for most of this short novel he is out of the scene after getting stitched up by a fellow immigrant and finds himself going to prison.  The story takes us through incidents and events as we follow the characters around and about, whether it is a woman hustling to make a living or drinking and smoking and partying, and so on.  Although Bat does work, is he the best to look after the finances for their dream?  And will it ever come to fruition?

Taking in the country as it was at the time, so we can see how immigrants were treated, with one being thrown out of a house for Indians, because he was brought up in the West Indies, although the irony being that the person who grasses him up and is living at the house is the same.  Despite the realities of the situation so there is a lot of comedy here and I would hazard a guess that if you like Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’ then you will probably enjoy this.

Taking in numerous themes and being quite nuanced in places so we see the effects of racism, the sort of dreams that many of us yearn for, and the grim realities of life that we have to conquer to realise them.  There is even a great vignette when a group of the characters visit Hampton Court and get their history a bit mixed up, as well as another character trying to make money out of the excursion for himself.  A thank you goes to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an eARC.
Was this review helpful?