Desktop version

Home arrow Political science

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Cosmopolitan Conviviality

Many local settings are increasingly characterized by cultural diversity. Those of cosmopolitan inclinations may make selective use of their habitats to maintain their expansive orientation toward the wider world (Hannerz 1996: 110).

The following chapter, ‘Guest’, revolves around the movements of the victim Felix, a car mechanic (of Jamaican and Ghanian parentage) and resident of Willesden. Felix is indicative of the socioeconomic inequalities existing within London, constantly passing symbols of the capital’s wealth to which he is denied access: ‘[s]lick black doors, brass knobs, brass letterboxes’ (105). Leah’s philosophy of empathy, openness and hospitality to her community has not been extended to Felix by the

Caldwell housing estate. Crucially, the growing economic inequality in the area problematises the potential for a cultural convergence in human commonality. Felix moves into the area aged eight: ‘too late in Caldwell to make good friends. To do that you had to be born and bred’ (89). Phil Barnes, a ‘proper old leftie’ and neighbour of Felix’s father Lloyd, echoes Leah’s compassion for the people of Willesden and the socioeconomic troubles of London in the twenty-first century: ‘I believe in the people [... ] Not that it’s done me any good, but I do. I really do’ (101). Barnes bemoans the economic decline of London’s urban communities, linking the degeneration to an absence of communal engagement and claiming that the current generation of youngsters are not politically engaged. Lloyd, however, is resistant to the possibility of communality; the absence of a doorbell at his flat-entrance suggests ‘a new level of surrender’ (90). Despite being subject to economic and racial inequalities, Lloyd fails to comprehend the reasoning behind such cosmopolitan empathy for other races, questioning why Barnes would want to ‘get in on the struggle when it ain’t even his struggle’ (95). Although Felix clearly disagrees with his father’s moral outlook, he perceives Barnes’s left-wing outlook to belong to a bygone era, an impractical response to the everyday experience and stark realism of contemporary urban life. In turning away from both of these opposing ideologies, Felix instead acts as the mouthpiece for Smith’s own cautiously pragmatic attitude towards intercultural relations.

The majority of Felix’s narrative concerns his relationship with Annie Bedford, an ageing, white, upper-class drug-addict. The encroaching cos- mopolitanisation of her local community, coupled with her drug abuse, convinces Annie that her own apartment ‘was France [... ] I felt I needed a passport to cross the room’ (127). As Mica Nava identifies, contemporary London is increasingly characterised by these ‘hybrid, post-multicultural, lived transformations which are the outcome of diasporic cultural mixing and indeterminacy’ (2007: 13). Annie is the microcosmic embodiment of Middle England xenophobia resisting such ethnic infiltration. Her palpable belief in the reified and concrete nature of identity, cultural or otherwise, contrasts sharply with the novel’s cosmopolitan fluidity, indicating the ethno-phobic perspective of individuals who continue to perceive British society as a monoculture. In perceiving cultural diversity as a cancer upon her failing and increasingly restricted empire, Annie recognises that her own meagre dwelling is under threat from foreign bodies, as ethnic difference not only surrounds her but begins to intrude upon her private life.

The fear of ethnic infiltration unsettles her already fragile psyche; she neurotically interprets Westminster council’s questions regarding her claim for assistance to be a ploy to displace and supplant her with a Russian who will pay higher rent. A Norwegian sub-agent who works for the landlord attempts to force Annie to contribute to the shared areas of the building. Annie merely proclaims that she avoids the other tenants: ‘I barely use the stairs. It may be a “shared area” but I don’t use it’, and notes that the man possesses a ‘funny accent’, calling him ‘Mr - I can’t possibly pronounce that name’ (125). She goes on to mistake Norway’s financial troubles for those of Iceland, admitting: ‘I always get the Nordic ones sort of...’ before tangling ‘her fingers together’ (126). Annie’s evident ethnocentrism acts as a diametrically-opposed force to Leah’s cosmopolitan empathy in the narrative, indicating how a concentration on ethnic difference alone destabilises and obstructs cultural engagement.

According to Gilroy, contemporary society needs to interrogate ‘what sorts of insight and reflection might actually help increasingly differentiated societies and anxious individuals to cope successfully with the challenges involved in dwelling comfortably in proximity to the unfamiliar without becoming fearful and hostile’ (2004: 3). Felix’s presence in Annie’s flat, however, fails to indicate the progression of intercultural relations in post-millennial London. The dilapidated state of Annie’s decaying realm is reflected in her mental well-being. She becomes agoraphobic from within the polyphony of multicultural London and avoids living with alterity by psychologically holding the world at bay. As a result, Felix begins to suspect the true reason for Annie’s increasingly restricted mobility: she ‘wasn’t really afraid of open spaces, she was afraid of what might happen between her and the other people in them’ (127). By remaining resistant to hospitality and ill-disposed to difference, Annie embodies a nationalistic outlook, intent on keeping the hostile ‘other’ excluded from her life. The entropic nature of Annie’s insular existence is strengthened by her biological decrepitude and sexless infertility in comparison to the fertile transnationalism sprouting all around her: ‘your lot have a lot of babies they can’t afford or take care of (141). Annie’s criticism here reflects what Gilroy terms the ‘iconic ciphers ofpostcolonial melancholia: criminals [... ] and their numberless alien offspring’, distancing herselffrom hostile cultures that will destabilise her imagined sense of class hierarchy and racial privilege (2005: 146).

By mocking her neighbours across the road, a Japanese and French couple, Annie also doubts the practicality of cross-racial mixing. Notably, she maintains a psychological detachment from her own cross-racial relationship with Felix, whom she merely describes as ‘a man of the world’ (on account of his transnational heritage), who attends to her needs (125). Her lack of knowledge regarding Felix’s personal life or culture is evident in her vague description of Willesden as ‘very “diverse”. Lord, what a word’ (126). As a result of Annie’s systematic rejection of other cultural relations, Felix comes to question his own presence in her flat: ‘[h]ow did he ever come to know this place? Unknowing it would just be the restoring of things to their natural, healthy state’ (121). Through Annie and Felix’s tense rapport, Smith’s narrative is acting out what Gilroy perceives as contemporary society’s ‘ordinary experiences of contact, cooperation, and conflict across the supposedly impermeable boundaries of race, culture, identity, and ethnicity’ (2005: xii). Annie’s condescending treatment of Felix, as if he were her colonial subject, forces him to wonder if her flat ‘truly was a separate world. Her Majesty upstairs swore it was’ (121). The racialised discourses inherent in the chapter consequently evoke the spectre of imperial heritage and ethnic classification as a challenge to cosmopolitan hybridity. Gilroy considers the fixity of cultural heritage to act as an antithesis to conviviality, resulting in a ‘[p]ostimperial melancholia’ still evident in contemporary life (2004: 109). The progressive presence of transnational others in Annie’s flat, where ‘nothing was ever refreshed’, therefore echoes Gilroy’s related claim that cultural confrontation ‘turn[s] the tables on all purity seekers [... ] to force them to account for their phobia about otherness’ (121; 2004: 167). Felix ultimately determines that Annie is beyond help, proudly comparing the politically enlightened nature of his new girlfriend Grace to Annie’s racially-motivated closedmindedness. By simply leaving the negative stasis of her entropic living space behind, Felix is able to rejoin and embrace the vibrancy of London life, less bound by Annie’s racial categorisation.

Like Leah, Felix attempts to connect with the diverse inhabitants of Willesden through small daily actions of comity, goodwill and citizenship, all of which fail to engender a reciprocal response. He encounters Tom, a young white male attempting to sell his father’ s car, who finds it difficult to associate or identify with Felix after discovering he is black. In an effort to relate to Felix, Tom resorts to asking him for drugs, betraying and exposing the continuation of racial stereotyping in the capital with which Felix is well-familiar. Later, after smiling at a small Jewish woman he catches eyes with on a passing train, Felix notes that the woman’s ‘little dark face pulled tight like a net bag’, unable to process this simple act of compassion and attempt at connection across ethnic divides (103). Her reaction fictionalises Smith’s own declaration that: ‘I’m sad when I see people glaring at each other on the Tube’ (emphasised as one of the main reasons she abhors British society) (2005a: n.pag.). As with Leah’s act of hospitality, Felix’s cordial altruism is the root cause of his misfortune. He attempts to force two young black men (intimated to be Nathan Bogle and his friend, Tyler) to give up their seats on the tube for a heavily pregnant white woman, receiving verbal abuse in response. The pregnant woman even assumes the two men are Felix’s friends, on account of their shared colour. The tense atmosphere surrounding the encounter suggests that Felix is doomed to remain defined by his race, perpetuating a history of racism, prejudice and fear that arguably characterised late-twentieth century relations. After leaving the station, he is attacked and stabbed in the side by the two men, proving yet again that cosmopolitan empathy can result in destructive consequences for the bestower.6

The chapter ends bleakly with Felix’s death, as the local bus stops to collect a young girl dressed for summer. London’s populace simply continue with their lives, indifferent to the racial and socioeconomic struggles of their fellow residents. Felix’s narrative, in particular, brings lucidity and cultural realism to idealistic notions of cosmopolitan empathy in an urban environment. Through the characters of Leah and Felix, Smith corrects models of cultural connectivity that argue for a binary distinction between global and local spheres. While the aspirations of cosmopolitanism often seem to reject or ignore the role of the local, Smith’s narrative is not directly promoting global engagement but instead advocating a specific form of glocal cosmopolitanism that perceives identity as a negotiation between local and ethnic identities.7 Glocal cosmopolitanism ensures that Leah and Felix’s practice of the cosmopolitan ideals of openness and empathy includes and encapsulates ‘[e]verybody’ (as Smith’s repeated narrative refrain affirms) without the need for cultural mobility (35). That being said, Smith resists an idealistic conception of community or cultural connection, conceding that:

there’s such a shelter in each other, but it’s also true [... ] that we refuse to be each other [... ] it’s really impossible to make a leap of empathy entirely into another person’s head [... ] to do it entirely would be intolerable of course, and would be a dissolution of yourself. But it has to be done to some extent, otherwise there’s only strangers and enemies. People who are opposed to your will, and trying to understand that your will is not the only thing on the planet, but [... ] makes space for all these other wills [... ] that’s the whole point. (2006: n.pag.)

The necessity for a tolerance of differing wills encapsulates the personal relationship of Leah and Natalie De Angelis, whose similarities in childhood and adolescence are disrupted by encroaching differences in ethnicity and class.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics