Calypso in London

Nearly twenty years ago, writing my PhD thesis in Cardiff, Wales, I had a look at Michael Bond’s Paddington books and concluded that Paddington, a foreigner and an illegal immigrant to Britain, sacrifices everything from his past to achieve a desired kinship with Britain.  He gives up his homeland, his language, and even his name (trading it for the name of a railway station, the ultimate symbol of British imperial progress).  The British Empire, which once ruled over a quarter of the world’s population, was by 1958 (the year A Bear Called Paddington was published) officially a dying entity.  More and more former colonies were becoming independent nations. But in children’s books, I argued, the Empire was not only alive, it was revered.

What I did not know then was that Paddington’s journey was one followed by thousands of people from the British Empire (and, in some cases, former Empire) to the “Motherland” with the same sense of hope and reverence for all things British.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, before an anti-immigration backlash by members of Parliament such as Enoch Powell, people from the British West Indies flocked to London in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families.  Many found themselves in a love-hate relationship with the metropole, as they worked long hours at low-paying, undesirable jobs while the promise of a better life dangled always just out of reach.  Some, like my mother-in-law, worked those hours and hoped for a better, and typically British, life for their children.  Others used their perceived exoticism to succeed and thrive on their own terms.

West Indians arriving in London looking for acceptance often faced the opposite, as doors to housing and jobs were shut in their faces.

The novelist Sam Selvon, originally from Trinidad, was one of the West Indians who came to London, and he chronicled the lives of West Indians in the capital, the hard-workers and the tricksters.  Selvon’s work was popular in the West Indian community in London and throughout the Caribbean, and was often used in school reading anthologies.  Clive Borely’s Breakthrough reading series, for example, includes an excerpt from Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight, entitled “Calypso in London.”  In it, a former Trinidadian oil-rig worker tries to become a Calypsonian like his friend because this is the way to “make money and come rich” (120).  He writes about losing his London job, but his friend mistakes the lyric as being about Trinidad: “It had a time in this country/ When everybody happy excepting me/ I can’t get a work no matter how I try/ It looks as if hard times riding me high” (120).  His friend tells him the only way to succeed is not to write about Trinidad, but about the Suez crisis, negating both their past in Trinidad and their present experience in London.  Londoners, Selvon implies, only want to hear about foreigners as long as they stay foreign.  Or, in Paddington’s case, as long as they learn to be British (no matter how comic the results of a foreigner trying to be British might be).

Selvon's West Indians discussing calypso in a tailor shop--like the one in which real-life calypsonian King Timothy worked.  Illustrator Jennifer Northway.

Selvon’s West Indians discussing calypso in a tailor shop–like the one in which real-life calypsonian King Timothy worked. Illustrator Jennifer Northway.

Given all this as background, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Calypso band used as Greek chorus in the new “Paddington” movie.  Director Paul King, interviewed by BBC arts reporter Tim Masters (, said that he made a connection between Paddington’s journey and West Indians when his wife introduced him to calypso: “This is the music being made in the place where these books were written, by people who arrived on these shores” in much the same way Paddington did.  He goes on to say that his discovery, “felt like such a glorious gift – they are really upbeat positive songs – for the most part – all about that experience.”  And the music in the movie mirrors Paddington’s encounters in London: when he first arrives, for example, the calypso band appears on the streets of London and plays Lord Kitchener’s famous arrival-from-the-West Indies-tune, “London is the Place for Me.”

But actually only two of the songs played by the band D Lime (a group of four calypsonians featuring Tobago Crusoe created specifically for King’s film) are “all about that experience” of coming to London, Kitchener’s tune and King Timothy’s bebop-inspired “Gerrard Street” (which includes a mix of nationalities dancing together and “going crazy” for jazz).  The other two songs in the film were written and performed by people who never came to London at all.  “Savito” is credited to the most successful female record producer in Jamaica, Sonia Pottinger, and was most famously performed by the Heptones, a Jamaican rocksteady and ska band, in the late 1960s.  The final song is the exception to King’s description of calypso as upbeat and positive; it is “Blow Wind Blow” by Lionel Belasco.  Belasco, born in Trinidad, made his first record in 1914, was best-known for performing for high society in New York and Venezuela in the 1920s and 1930s.  Belasco’s tune sounds downbeat and negative, but like most calypso tunes, the surface message often masks another; one line in “Blow Wind Blow” has the down-but-not-out speaker guaranteeing that he will soon be “Trampling ten thousand enemy”.

By assuming that all these songs describe the experience of foreigners in London, King both misses and makes his point that calypso—like Paddington—belongs in London.  In truth, the various musical styles and musicians that came out of the Caribbean during the twentieth century are, like Paddington in both book and film, products of a British (not to mention other European and American) Empire(s) that explored, exploited, and abandoned the region to its fate, after firmly implanting the idea that civilization was at its height wherever the British could be found.  Darkest Peru was never, of course, part of the British Empire, but the movie shows a pith-helmeted Brit exploring the region, leaving behind his hat as a symbol of civilization that Aunt Lucy and Paddington long to fully embrace by going to London.  Paddington and D Lime stand out in London, appearing to disorient the British public.  Although this British public never fully understands the “foreigners,” it is encouraging that (unlike in Selvon’s novels) the foreigners are accepted, even embraced, and calypso in London is no longer an anomaly.

Hand-in-hand: foreign-born Paddington and British-born Judy Brown.  Illustrator Peggy Fortnum.

Hand-in-hand: foreign-born Paddington and British-born Judy Brown. Illustrator Peggy Fortnum.

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