Robert Elms, during my interview with him last week asked why I had written my novel ‘A Blues for Shindig’. I told him that in part it was because of a remark that Colin McInnes made in his ‘City of Spades’ when he referred to the women who associated with black men as ‘Silly white girls’ the remark offended me(and while I quite understand that we were of no interest to him, to dismiss us all was a tad harsh)but it certainly was not the only reason I wrote my novel. Much of the book is centred in Soho, where I worked in a sleazy club, and though I have read a lot of books about Soho they all appear to have been written about a Soho that was inhabited almost exclusively by white middle class men with artistic aspirations who led a bohemian life.
I know that there are some written by women too but I feel that there was a separate Soho – a parallel universe if you like – happening simultaneously. This was my Soho and it has in my opinion been sadly neglected. We went to different clubs, danced to a different tune and met and celebrated black culture in our own way. As for being silly? I am sure we were, and part of our folly, according to the general consensus was in choosing to spend our lives with people of a different ethnicity.At that time we were frowned upon and thought to be prostitutes by rather a lot of people, the police in particular and of course racists.
There were prostitutes among us I know. But they were a very small percentage of us ‘silly white girls.’ Most, including me discovered the charm of black culture incidentally and liked it. The fifties were a monochrome time in the suburbs and the vivacity of black Soho was a joyful surprise. It was not limited to Soho of course, but Soho was a centre of Jazz clubs where all races met and the Sunset Club (later the Roaring Twenties) was a centre for us all to meet up. We lived in The Grove or Brixton and would fetch up in Soho at weekends to dance and have fun.
I lived first in a house in Brixton with a couple, he a Freetown man she a white woman. It was owned by a Nigerian man and at first I thought that he and his cronies were fighting when in fact they were talking. My impression was that we whites were running on only two cylinders while blacks were full throttle alive. We laughed more yelled more and Earl Bostick and African sounds rang through the house a lively accompaniment to our shin of beef soup and foo foo. (I never fully appreciated the food but it was not compulsory and there was a perfectly good pie and eel shop in the market.) I made friends with a Ghanaian woman Marie who attempted to teach me to dance like an African woman, I was a dismal failure at this.
So Robert: that’s why I and a lot of other white ‘ladies’ chose to spend our time with black blokes, it was exciting and very different from home and in my case I was interested in the independence movement, incensed by the colonial aspect of the British and in love with Bessie Smith and a big fan of Billie Holiday. I am grateful to Mr McInnes now because without him I may not have discovered the joy of writing my novel reliving the truths and concocting the half truths.