Brixton, home of many London blacks and site of disturbing riots -- disturbing to the English who have somewhat loftily supposed themselves immune to racial or class violence -- is only half an hour from the fashionable center of London. You may notice some London police just outside the station, and if you are white and ask them a good place to eat in Brixton they are very delicate indeed.
Their communication is clear. You are out of your mind. Go back to Victoria station. Her in Brixton they don't eat they just drink.
"Some good places back in Victoria," on of them says.
Down the street, however, tremendous noise issues from the Prince o Wales Saloon, which as turned itself into a disco for the evening, with an improvised sound system and a few colored lights blinking somewhat halfheartedly in the twilight, and a crowd of maybe 70 already settled in. You can get fizz water and a possibly poisonous orange concoctions at any pub, if for some reason you do not fancy the strange potations of London, especially (at the Prince of Wales) lager with lime-flavored syrup in it.
Fifty of the people are black, Jamaicans largely, one might guess and 10 are white men who blend in rather well in the sense that they are not looking about and have either descended to a mild stupor or else are quite young and rather oblivious to where they are in the first place.
The amazing people of the bar are the white women, who range in age but are none of them very young, and some must be well into their 60s. The faces are hardly to be believed, and show that the famous Hogarth prints in the "Gin Lane" series owe little to the artist's imagination but are merely literal renderings froma camera obscura. There was a time these women combed their hair, but it did them no good, perhaps, so no need to bother now. There was a time they were, if not alluring, at least coy. They must once have waited for men to approach them, and must have played the ancient game of being outraged that a stranger should presume to speak to them, etc., etc. But now they dispense with games. They walk past a man seriously into his ale and move their hips in a sexual way. He may not look up, even. No matter, they complete their little dance, sometimes unsteadily, lost in the art of it, and wander on as if to the next level of Purgatory, only it is not a distressing journey so far as one can tell.
A white man has ordered some dark drink which, when it arrives, does not seem to him the right color. He is the most likely fellow to start a conversation with, however, but you bide your time letting things work naturally, fairly sure that within half an hour you'll be in that particular kind of grunting communication that initiates conversation, eventually, in such places.
Unfortunately, the more he looks at his pint, the more distressed he becomes that it's too pale. Not dark enough by half. He speaks to he barmaid of this. She is hard-pressed, two barmaids to so many customers, and argues that it's the same thing he's been drinking right along. He is silent. Without much warning (and long before one has been able to learn anything form hism about Brixton) he slides his pint across the bar where it is barely caught by the barmaid and slops over considerably. He curses deeply and briefly and stalks out the door.
Well, no chat with that one tonight, one perceives. A mom and pop couple sit near a windown lost ineach other. They are 60. You would think they had dropped into the Savoy for tea. They do not like anybody else, and you can imagine they run a small shop selling ribbons. Then the woman rises, passes the man operating the record machines, faces him with a bump and grind, and retires to the women's washroom. She returns and the mom-pop couple resume their genteel tea.
A tinkle has been caused by a man throwing a stemmed galss to the floor. He picks up the now-jagged length of glass and approaches the man he has been drinking with, as if with a knife. The other man is stronger, is not frightened, calls him a name and drags him out to the sidewalk. There is no pool of blood, you are relieved to notice when you yourself leave and look at the pavement for signs of recent murder.
A quite large woman with a somewhat pretty (fat womn usually have lovely features) face and hair that has not been groomed since Easter sits down beside you. She does not expect much. It has been a long time since she expected anything. All the same, you have no right to waste her time and gently indicate this. She wants a lager with lime but does not want to ask -- not because she is ashamed to, but because she really does not want any more insults or harsh rebuffs. You but her the strange drink. She extends her fingers at the level of your eyes and smiles. She knows better than to think you will kiss her hand, though that is the gesture she has made, only at the level of your eyes as if to say she no longer expects a man to do anything at all. You shake her hand, missing a finger or two, and speak as gently, as noncommitally, as you can manage, hoping your voice does not betray shock or distaste.
She is perceptive. She says nothing, but she registers everything. She thanks you for the frightful beer and smiles frankly with warmth and -- for she does not want you to think she has misinterpreted your politeness -- rises and walks away. As you leave later, she reaches out and touches your hand, without looking at you as you pass.
At first you are terrified your gait, your manner, make you not merely conspicuous but outrageously out of place.After 40 minutes, you are equally terrified that you are not conspicuous at all, but are indistinguishable.
After a conversation, which you have not actively sought, of course, though you hoped for it, you ask a man if he feels Jamaicans are subject to intolerable prejudice in London.
"No. I don't think so," he says. "But I don't know. I'm not Jamaican."
"Sorry -- I thought you grew up in Jamaica and only came here as a grown man."
"I lived in Jamaica 24 years," he replies. "But I am a black Englishman."
The men have money enough for beer and cigarettes, and most of them still think well enough of themselves that they have taken some care with their appearance and grooming. In this they differ from the white women who have given up.
One of the women wobbles across the room and sinks onto a banquette, leaning her head on another woman who is drinking. The second women pushes her off, playfully, then with annoyance, but the first woman is past noticing this rebuff. She sinks to the woman's lap, and the second women realizes the first one is now unconscious. Instead of shoving her away, as formerly, she cradles her briefly like a child, then resumes her drink and her conversation with a man, while the lost child (so to speak) sleeps and dreams, most likely, of a summer day by the river when she was 10.
The room does not have an air of full loss and despair. It does have strongly the air of the end of the road. These people are not here casually, I was convinced, as other people might drop casually into a neighborhood tavern for a beer. Instead, they are here as a communion with mankind. You are almost certain, from what you overhear and from what you see, that none of these people see a future for themselves, and almost certainly they are well past family ties or jobs they worry about.
They are down to the wire, and they have taken some trouble to look as good as they can in their almost ceremonial apperance in human society.
They know they are commonly despised by the luckier shiftless, unwilling to do an honest day's work, etc.Their accent, their color thei manners, set them apart from the white laboring class.
And from the police, who speak discreetly enough but whose message has been that the society of these people is unfit for decent folk.
The admirable writer, Conrad, once had one of his characters recommend "in the destrcutive element immerse." As a swimmner in a vast water should sink and let the water bear him up, not struggle against it. Or as moral authorities (truly moral authorities, not the cretians who commonly style themselves that) have for centuries warned against too fierce struggles usually mires one even deeper in them, and instead offer consel to turn aside, and let some new thing in.
But of course we are too absorbed, generally, in our shortcomings and dwell not very profitably but at endless length upon them. We try to talk it out, as a wit once observed, or laugh it out or drink it out. Lest we should be turned away in some new direction and be healed.
Anyway, these people struck me as having stopped the struggle, and were counting on an apperance in human society (seeking nothing and expecting nothing) to float them on. And it is rare, I thought, that one ever is in any group of people who have let it all drop and given it all over and who are merely waiting, and who, moreover, by instinct trust that merely coming together with other humans will in some way accomplish the turning and the filling of the emptiness.